Silencing Rushdie: The slimy cowardice of the soft state

It’s official now. Writer Salman Rushdie will not be speaking at the Jaipur Literary Festival on 20 January. His name does not figure on the amended programme for the day, and although he is still listed for another day, the prospects of his coming appear dim, going by the atmospherics surrounding his visit.

Namita Gokhale, co-director of the literary festival, says that Rushdie, whose 20 January program was one of the star billings of this year, will not be in India on that day. She points to security concerns as the reason: Muslim organisations, still incensed about The Satanic Verses 20-plus years after its publication, had objected to Rushdie’s coming to India, and some of them had been inciting violence against the writer.

Silencing Rushdie: The slimy cowardice of the soft state

The balloon of the Indian liberal state is sinking into the abyss . Reuters

The vice-chancellor of the Deoband seminary, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, had asked the government to disallow Rushdie from coming to India. But when it became clear that Rushdie did not need a visa, and could therefore come unimpeded, other forms of intimidation were rustled up.

The Mumbai-based Raza Academy, which claims to have a following among Sunni Muslims, offered a reward of Rs 1 lakh to anyone who would hurl a slipper on Rushdie’s face during his Jaipur visit.

In all this, the passive role of the government – at both the central and the state level - and its buckling to cynical political blackmail shows up the slimy cowardice of the soft state.

Rather than confront this naked incitement of manufactured Muslim rage over a non-issue (as Omar Abdullah himself described it), the government has caved in – and sneakily persuaded the organisers of the literary festival to withdraw Rushdie’s name from the bill of listings.

Initially, the government appeared to take the stand that it would not yield to the maulvis’ pressure – and since in any case Rushdie did not need any additional documentation to enable him to travel, the government said, it “had no intention to stop him.”

But behind the scenes, political leaders in Rajasthan from across the political spectrum (including the Congress and the BJP) were working actively to sabotage Rushdie’s visit.

State Congress leaders demanded that Rushdie, who had “insulted Islam”, should be disallowed from coming to the festival. Similarly, the minority cell in the BJP’s Rajasthan unit asked the Congress-led state government not to allow Rushdie to enter Jaipur. “We will make sure he is not allowed to enter the city,” BJP leader Munnawar Khan said. “We will not let such an author, who hurt our religious sentiments by presenting wrong facts about Prophet Mohammad, enter the city.”

The near-unanimity of political parties on this issue – and the fact that even the BJP had, presumably with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh election, gone soft on it - evidently emboldened the state government into sneakily “persuading” the festival organisers to delist Rushdie.

The Central and the state governments are probably now preening over their political sagacity: they have pandered to Muslim sensibilities without openly disallowing Rushdie from coming. And, given the curious political circumstances, no party – not even the BJP – wants to make political capital out of it. In its calculation, it’s a win-win proposition.

But in fact, with the effective silencing of Rushdie, a self-confessed “arguer with the world”, the Indian state has taken another giant stride on the slippery slope to creeping illiberalism. In the same manner in which the government did not confront the campaign of intimidation against MF Husain when he was targeted by the force of right-wing illiberalism, and in tune with the same censorship instinct that now extends to its targeting of social media platforms, the Indian “soft state” has exposed its rank moral cowardice.

Listening to Rushdie is important merely because, as Nilanjana S Roy points out, he plants the seeds of doubt (about organised religion) in our minds.

“In the two decades since The Satanic Verses was banned, it has become increasingly hard to discuss the idea Rushdie puts forward in his work, which is the idea that doubt is necessary and valuable. But in that time, India has also moved closer to accepting, blindly and without much fuss, a worryingly widespread belief. This is the belief that at worst, questioning any faith or religion is in itself a kind of blasphemy — and at best, it’s an esoteric activity that the majority can safely ignore.”

The argument for welcoming Rushdie to Jaipur, notes Roy, was a simple one. His early works are “unsettling and uncomfortable, and we need that discomfort much more in 2012 than we need the safe formulas of the new bestsellers” (of the sorts that Chetan Bhagat, for instance, churns out).

In a lyrical oration that Rushdie delivered in December 1991, after living through 1,000 days in hiding following the fatwa for his killing ordered by the Iranian spiritual leader, the writer invoked the famous parlour-room Balloon Debate.

In that mindgame, a hot-air balloon is sinking into an abyss, bearing several passengers, but only one of them can be borne to safety. Each participant has to make a pitch for why he deserves to live – and Rushdie himself makes a very persuasive case for himself.

In the Indian context, however, the balloon that bears Rushdie is weighted down by narrow political calculations. Pandering to regressive mullah-maulvi sensibilities, the soft state that is India and all the political parties that joined in the campaign to disallow him to come to Jaipur have effectively voted to throw Rushdie out of the balloon.

Little do they realise, however, that the balloon that is sinking into the abyss is in fact the collective conscience of India. Shame on all of them.

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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2012 08:53:30 IST