No Indian politician was willing to welcome Rushdie: Dalrymple
What went down behind the scenes at the Jaipur Literature Festival with the Rushdie drama? William Dalrymple tells the backstory.
by William Dalrymple
On Tuesday afternoon this week I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make.
It was the last afternoon of the Jaipur Literature Festival, of which I am co-director, and more than 10,000 people were milling around the grounds of Diggi Palace, the festival venue, eagerly waiting to hear Salman Rushdie speak by video link from London. For three weeks we had waited anxiously for this moment, ever since Maulana Abdul Qasim Nomaniof the Deoband madrasa had called for the Indian Muslim community to oppose Rushdie's visit to our festival. For those three weeks we had been negotiating with various government agencies, the police, a spectrum of intelligence agencies and local Muslim groups to try to make sure that Rushdie could still be heard. Despite a great deal of pressure, we had kept our invitation open and had refused to back down from our position that Rushdie had every right to return to the country of his birth and to discuss his work.
Then at about one o'clock a large number of Muslim activists appeared in the property and gravitated to the back of the lawns where a huge crowd had gathered to hear the videolink. Some of them went into the central courtyard of the palace to make their namaz (pray), and according to some reports, the maulana in charge told his followers that if anyone was killed that day they would die a martyr. Then they sought out our producer, Sanjoy Roy, and told him that they were prepared to use any amount of violence in order to stop Rushdie's voice being heard. Others talked to the press: one told a reporter from the Times of India that "rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie", while the Muslim Manch representative Abdul Salim Sankhla was quoted as saying: "We will not allow Rushdie to speak here in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks." While all this was happening, some of the other activists were turfing school children out of their seats and intimidating festival guests.
The videolink was due to start at 3.45pm. At three o'clock, as Rushdie was already on his way to the television studio, as crowds were gathering, and as the number of activists/thugs was increasing alarmingly, Sanjoy, my co-director, the author Namita Gokhale and I were called to the security control room by the Jaipur commissioner of police. He had more bad news for us. As well as the activists gathering inside the festival venue, hundreds of protesters were now massing threateningly in the municipal gardens just outside. He was quite clear: the videolink could go ahead, they had the resources to make sure it wasn't interrupted, but "there would be violence in the venue and worse outside" if we didn't call it off. We asked what exactly this meant. He said that his officers had asked if they could use force, and that they were expecting "serious trouble". What might this entail? Lathi(truncheon) charges and police shooting? It was a possibility, he said.
What do you do in this situation? The crowd is getting restless, more and more protesters are entering the property, Rushdie is now sitting in the studio in London waiting to speak and Barkha Dutt, the gutsy Indian television host who is to interview him, is all set to begin. You have three to five minutes, maximum, to make a decision. If you give in to the intimidation, you put at risk all the principles upon which literary life is based: what is the point of having a literary festival, a celebration of words and ideas, if you censor yourself and suppress an author's voice? But equally, can you justify going ahead with a literary event, however important, if you know that you will thereby be putting at risk the lives of everyone who attends – including the authors who have come at your invitation and hundreds of school children and elderly people – as well as knowingly igniting a major religious riot in one of the most crowded towns in northern India with a long tradition of tensions between different communities?
That tradition of tension lay in part behind the problems we were now facing. In 2007, when literary events in Jaipur were still in their infancy, Rushdie was our first big international star, and his presence at the festival was a milestone for us. It raised our profile beyond anything we could have hoped or imagined. Rushdie came unannounced, with no bodyguards or police protection, and spoke brilliantly, sitting drinking tea and signing books for his fans, while giving avuncular advice to younger writers who had never met a writer of his stature. No objections were raised, no politicians got involved, no problems arose.
This time, however, the political situation in India is much more volatile. The 2012 festival happened to coincide with a razor-edge election in the all-important north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a poll in which the vote of the Muslim community was deemed to be crucial. It also came only four months after the Rajasthan government found itself in trouble with its Muslim voters after the Rajasthan police fired on a crowd of angry Muslim protesters at Gopalgarh, an hour's drive east of Jaipur, killing 10 people.
All this meant that when, at Rushdie's request, we announced his name on our website, and when Maulana Nomani of Deoband then called for Rushdie to be banned from India, not a single Indian politician was willing to state clearly and unequivocally that he was welcome in the country in which he was born, which he loved, which he had celebrated in his fiction and to whose literature he had made such a ground-breaking contribution.
In other ways too things had got much more difficult since 2007. The commitment of Indian politicians to maintaining artistic and intellectual freedom seemed to be becoming ever weaker. In the past few months, Joseph Lelyveld's distinguished book on Gandhi had been banned in the state of Gujerat, AK Ramanujan's great study of the Ramayana had been removed from the syllabus of Delhi university, and the country's most revered modern artist, MF Husain, had died in exile after Hindu fundamentalists had hounded him out of the country with a rash of lawsuits and attacks on him and his work. In almost all cases, the politicians had encouraged the protesters rather than protecting the writers and artists, using draconian colonial legislation intended to stop religious riots to silence the creative voice.
These were themes we had long discussed at the Jaipur festival. Almost every year we have had sessions on censorship and freedom of speech, the role of the writer when faced with oppression and the writer as dissident. At the 2009 festival, after the Mumbai attacks, when Shiv Sena activists had demanded that books by Pakistani authors be removed from the shelves of Mumbai bookshops, we had responded by asking more Pakistani writers to Jaipur in order to restart the dialogue between the writers and readers of the two countries. We feared reprisals but in the event Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie,Fatima Bhutto and Nadeem Aslam were the stars of the show, feted by festival audiences and treated like rock stars.
This year was much more testing. When we passed on to Rushdie information based on a report from the Intelligence Bureau, of an assassination squad allegedly intending to "eliminate him", he finally made the decision to cancel his visit, writing to us that: "I can't imperil the audience or my fellow writers or any of you."
There followed, on the first evening of the festival, the subsequent protests which Hari Kunzru has written about for the Guardian. The police turned up 45 minutes after they finished their readings and for a while it looked as if the festival was going to be shut down on the following morning. That did not happen, and authors were able at the beginning of almost every session to express solidarity with Rushdie and his predicament, while a petition was circulated which called for "the right of all artists and writers to freedom of expression", and urged "the government to reconsider the 23-year-old ban of theSatanic Verses", a ban which put India in the company of Iran, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea.
And we still had the video link with Rushdie, and the hope that we might yet be able to have at least a virtual Rushdie close the festival. Now, at 3.45pm, that link hung in the balance and we had five minutes to make an unenviable choice: cause a riot or uphold a vital principle.
In the event, we never got to make that decision. The owner of our festival venue, Ram Pratab Singh of Diggi Palace, stepped in and, on the advice of the police commissioner, took the decision for us. He said he was unable to take responsibility for a lathi charge and possible deaths in a venue full of children and old people, and forbade the link to take place on his property. He stood on stage and announced his decision. Then it was the turn of Sanjoy to speak for us. "We have been bullied and pushed to the wall," he said, choking up. "All of us feel hurt, disgusted and ashamed." As Sanjoy broke down on stage, the audience clapped loudly and supportively. Minutes later I got an email from Rushdie on my BlackBerry: "Yes, an ugly day, but please don't reproach yourself. You all worked so hard. Thank you."
After three weeks of fighting to bring Rushdie to our festival we had to give up then and there. But we had a plan B: as previously arranged, Barkha Dutt went ahead with her TV interview, and what we could not show to our audience of 10,000 was seen instead that evening by millions. Rushdie was as eloquent and defiant as I have ever heard him: "I will come to India many times," he said, "and I will not allow these religious gangsters and their cronies in government to stop me … My overwhelming feeling is disappointment on behalf of India … [where] religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas", where politicians were "in bed with these groups … for narrow electoral reasons" and the police "unable to secure venues against demonstrators". In a final flourish he also slammed the extremists whom, he said, "were the real enemies of Islam". Meanwhile, on stage, we had a rousing panel discussion about freedom of expression, which was beamed live around India. There could have been worse outcomes.
We can only hope that the debate begun in Jaipur continues. Outdated colonial laws need to be repealed, violent fringe groups must be stopped from holding the nation to ransom and we need a movement to stop politicians abusing religious sentiment for political gain. Only when freedom of expression can be taken for granted can India really call itself the democracy it claims so proudly to be.
This article is republished here courtesy the The Guardian.
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The India-born author is not giving any hints about his plans to visit India and has maintained a stoic silence on Twitter where he has been a regular commentator.
Novelist Vikram Seth today said the Rushdie affair was whipped up because of "power", "politics" and "misuse of religion".