A look back at the Salman Rushdie affair.
By preventing Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival, extremists have once again demonstrated the clout they hold on Indian politics. The irony of the whole fiasco is that these so-called spokespersons of community have, all of a sudden, felt offended by Rushdie’s presence in India.
The religious sensibilities of every community need to be respected, but can it be that these extremists ‘chose’ to feel offended this time around because there was a lot at stake in the upcoming UP elections. Rushdie has attended the Jaipur Literary festival in the past, he has spoken at the India Today Conclave, he has brought his family to see the country where he was born, but nobody felt offended then, because it was devoid of any political mileage.
A lot of blame has been put on the zealots for curbing the ‘thought process’ and the very idea of ‘free speech’, but I guess, that would mean that we are absolving the government of all its responsibility. The government has failed in its duty to ensure the safety of one of its most eminent citizens, and this has caused much disgrace to the image that we tend to portray to the world. The ‘pluralistic society’ and the most ‘vibrant democracy in the world’ couldn’t ensure that one man – who apparently happens to be an Indian citizen as much as those who he seems to have offended – was provided an opportunity to speak at what the government boasts of being the ‘greatest literary festival in the world’.
When George Bush – the architect of the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters visited India, there were no threats by these extremists, and the government of India, like it has done this time around, didn’t fabricate a story that a don from Mumbai has sent paid assassins to silence Bush once and for all. Common sense tells you that you don’t mess up with the ‘most powerful man in the world’. Rushdie, like all artists, is an easy target, a sitting duck, who could be attacked at will, may be with the complicity of those whom we elect to safeguard our right of free expression.
Before Rushdie’s opponents could have rejoiced in their success, there was one more task that had to be accomplished. The organizers had planned to host a video address by Rushdie yesterday which would have provided a platform to him to express himself. But, citing ‘law and order’ problems, even that video address had to be canceled and the government was again held to ransom by certain fringe elements, who didn’t even dare to come out in the open to reveal their identity. Later speaking to a news channel, Rushdie said that more than his personal agony, he was disappointed on the behalf of India – he termed this entire controversy as a black farce.
Twenty-three years ago, Rushdie asked a question to Rajiv Gandhi, who had become the first head of any country to ban his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’. In an open-letter published in the New York Times, he asked, “What sort of India do you wish to govern? Is it to be an open or a repressive society?” This is a question that is relevant even today to those at the helm of affairs. They need to understand that ‘that those who burn books will then burn people’.