Looking at all the shrieking and shouting on television (and reading the newspapers), it would seem as if the only people who have a view on the major debates of the day are: a) party spokesman with an agenda, b) fundamentalists with an agenda, c) party spokesmen and fundamentalists with an agenda masquerading as journalists and intellectuals without an agenda, and d) some extras who parrot out the most expected lines.
Communally sensitive issues like the Salman Rushdie episode, the A.K. Ramanujan essay ban, and the flight of M.F. Husain from the land of his birth, show how the nation’s discourse has been hijacked if not usurped by these “usual suspects”. It is as if the common men and women of India—Hindus, Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs et al—do not matter if they do not have a microphone attached to their lapel pins.
Here, a smalltown doctor pens his thoughts on l’affaire Rushdie.
By K. JAVEED NAYEEM
It is sad that, thanks to pure vote bank politics, the controversial writer Salman Rushdie, without being allowed to visit India, was still allowed to stir the already impure and extremely murky waters of Indian politics.
Rushdie’s physical and even virtual participation at the Jaipur literary festival was reportedly cancelled at the last minute after Muslim groups reportedly threatened violence even if his image was shown in a video-conference.
But except for the stray pictures of slogan-shouting Muslims, very appropriately attired for the occasion in skull caps and jubbas, just like film extras, I did not even sense any tremor of opposition from any right thinking Muslims worth their name or salt against his participation at the litfest.
It was only the media which went overboard to give more coverage to Rushdie’s aborted visit to Jaipur, than what it would have perhaps given him if he had actually visited the place and the event.
For a five full days, more Rushdie and less literature was discussed at the litfest, which is indeed a shame.
It is now an established fact that the threat to Rushdie’s life was much magnified, if not fully concocted, by our intelligence agencies and vote-hungry politicians, especially at the Congress-centric government at the Centre and the governments of the two Congress-ruled States of Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
Although he has been allowed to visit the country in the past without any problems, this time these three agencies decided to ban Rushdie’s visit clearly to appease the Muslim voters and impact the outcome of the forthcoming elections in the northern States.
That is why the threats to his life were ‘perceived’ in Bombay, the hub of all our terror threats, by intelligence agencies and conveyed to their counterparts in Rajasthan. Although the former deny their role, the latter reiterate that they have concrete evidence of the same.
The DGP of Maharashtra has said that they had not provided any input to Rajasthan in this regard while the Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has insisted that his government had received six messages from them about the threat.
Rushdie has no doubt faced death threats from fundamentalists ever since he wrote the controversial book but to give importance to the largely imaginary story that hired assassins were going to kill him in Jaipur this time shows how low even governments can stoop for imaginary vote banks.
It actually portrays our security preparedness in rather poor and unflattering light.
The man has actually derived much mileage from being controversial and our government does not realise that it has just augmented it.
The organisers of the Jaipur literary festival would certainly have known that his visit could spark protests and should have acted with a little more common sense and foresight before inviting him. The government too should have conveyed this possibility to the organisers since the visit was not at all a closely guarded secret.
Inviting Rushdie to the festival was clearly a very reckless and irresponsible act as it would have painted the whole of India in very bad light if something untoward had happened.
That there is much vote-bank politics behind this whole issue is eminently clear from the utterances of Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of New Delhi two days ago. Earlier in the day, she had told reporters that “one may have differences with what Rushdie writes, but he’s a very eminent writer and a Booker Prize winner who was welcome to visit Delhi.”
Barely hours after she praised him as a gifted writer she changed her mind. Her office issued a retraction stating that there is no question of welcoming the author of the banned “Satanic Verses.”
This sudden turn-around could only have been the result of a sharp rap on the elderly lady’s knuckles by her much younger lady mentor who undoubtedly wields the baton and the sceptre too.
In reality, banning his book has not prevented any determined readers from reading it. It has been always available to all and sundry except to our government from the black market. In five minutes it can be downloaded from the net and this can never be prevented by any kind of ban.
I certainly was very eager to find out what was bad in it and I found out very quickly too when I could borrow a copy from one of my teachers just a few days after it was proscribed. Since I have read everything that Rushdie has written, I feel it is not the ability to write well but his tendency to stamp on others’ toes deliberately which has made him famous.
This habit is the forte of all those without real talent. I do not endorse anyone making fun of Gods and Goddesses or revered personalities or the sacred texts of any religion. I have therefore also been very critical of M. F. Husain’s portrayal of Hindu deities in poor taste.
As a Muslim I would like to reiterate that The Satanic Verses, a work of fiction penned by Rushdie, certainly cannot shake our faith.
The history of Islam is full of instances where the prophet was subjected to much harsher criticism, including being dubbed an imposter for many years. But at no point of time was he ruffled one bit by such opposition or condemnation. He calmly went about his work with full conviction that what he was doing was in accordance with what Allah had ordained for him.
Let me reassure all Indians and all those anywhere in the world, who think that Indian Muslims are even slightly preoccupied with this Jaipur event, that I do not see it as anything more than a ripple on the surface of Indian politics.
It will certainly not shake our composure or patriotism.
It is actually time now for both Muslims and Hindus alike to rise much higher than being perturbed by what the Rushdies and Husains do in their free time.
This time a tottering Rushdie whose ink has dried up, has only used a lame excuse very conveniently to avoid attending an event which he was just frightened of attending like a timid boy. Let us not offer him a Jaipur foot to enter our minds and disturb our mindset.
(K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician who writes a column for Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared)
Photograph: Sir Salman Rushdie with television anchor Barkha Dutt at the Jaipur literary festival in 2007 (courtesy Shelly Jain)