Jaipur: Michael Ondaatje was apologetic as he faced the swelling crowd on the front lawns of Diggi Palace in Jaipur. Ondaatje, the author of books such as The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost was getting ready to chair a session on the short story. The problem was the Booker winning author didn’t write short stories.
“Please forgive any awkwardness,” he told the assembled crowd.
The awkwardness was not Ondaatje’s fault. He was just gamely filling in for Hari Kunzru who had had to leave the country for the “crime” of reading from The Satanic Verses on Friday, 20 January.
Salman Rushdie would have been the biggest literary celebrity at Jaipur. But in his absence, he became even bigger, hovering over the festival like Banquo’s ghost. It was hard to find a session that didn’t mention the man.
“The attacks on women in pubs, Husain, Rushdie – are all social policing. Intolerance begins with social policing,” said Aruna Roy at a session on Dissent and Democracy.
“When it comes to censorship the state responds very quickly to the demands of a small minority,” complained Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam.
Bestselling wonderboys Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi — of The Secret of the Nagas fame — added their own bromides to the mix. “Just because you have the right to hurt someone, should you?” wondered Bhagat while professing to be standing up for freedom of expression. “Rushdie should be invited to India for debate,” Tripathi said earnestly.
“Cherished freedoms must not be lost,” Kapil Sibal read from one of his own poems though it wasn’t clear he realised the irony of the line. Even the posters lining the entrance seemed reminders of the guest who did not come to dinner. “A book is the best weapon against intolerance and ignorance – Lyndon B. Johnson,” proclaimed one.
Yet the Jaipur Literature Festival, which boasts of being “the greatest literary show on earth” found itself struggling to stand up for a book and still stay within what it called “the four corners of the law.” On Monday came more bad news. Complaints were filed against festival producer Sanjoy Roy and the four authors — Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi — who read from The Satanic Verses in Jaipur, Ajmer and Hyderabad. The government dragged its feet on whether Rushdie would be allowed to address the literature festival by video link and Rushdie himself complained that the mafia hitmen story had been completely bogus.
But the damage to the festival’s reputation has gone beyond truculent politicians and trouble-seeking imams. Coming out strongly against charges of being pusillanimous, the festival organisers gave their blessings to critic Nilanjana Roy’s petition asking the Prime Minister to consider revoking the 1988 ban on The Satanic Verses.
“The Satanic Verses has not incited violence anywhere; others have used the novel's existence to incite violence to suit their political ends,” the petition reads. It continues, “We submit with respect that there is a democratic need to review and re-examine the circumstances that led to the original ban of the Verses in 1988, which have changed greatly over time.”
“The response has been wonderful, both offline and online, even though it’s just a handful of friends helping to circulate copies” said Roy. It’s far from clear however whether in the current political climate, this attempt to overturn the ban is anything more than wishful thinking.
But even if it succeeds, there is a bigger problem. Section 153A of the IPC, a colonial law of 1867 vintage allows police officers the power to search for and seize every copy and issue of the banned book. “As for the organizers, I would agree that since 153A has been interpreted on a very case by case basis, there could be private individuals or the government making out the case, that the festival, by allowing these readings were in violation of the substantive section,” says Siddharth Narain at the Alternative Law Forum. A magistrate can then authorise a police officer through Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code to enter and search any premises where such a book might reasonably exist.
Is the need of the hour “un-banning” Satanic Verses or doing something about a draconian law?
“Absolutely,” said Roy. “Some writers and ordinary readers have been working on filing PILs asking for clarity on the banning process.” But then she added, The Satanic Verses is a special case.
“No other banned book has caused so much debate for a twenty year period,” explained Roy. “And it seems unfair that one side cannot forget or let go of the book, while the rest of us can’t read it and make up our own minds.” However other legal experts have said that the book is banned under the Customs Act which means only its entry into India is banned.
Meanwhile as is always the case with these things, where there are microphones, there is no shortage of busybodies and activists to jump in front of them. Monday saw Swami Agnivesh all over the Diggi Palace grounds, holding impromptu press conferences. “I would like to demand an immediate official probe into the matter and the rest of us here must sign a petition calling for the probe and in support of Mr Rushdie,” Agnivesh told The Hindu.
Agnivesh got noticed but not quite as the champion of freedom of expression and our civil liberties.
“A group of school children went running after him,” said a journalist. “‘Look, look' they were telling each other. It’s that guy from Bigg Boss.”
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2012 12:00:01 IST