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Un-ban the Book: Rushdie and the challenge facing India

19 January , 2012

The Jaipur Literature Festival is set to start tomorrow in the glittering light of winter sunshine and high expectations. But, as they say in India, there is something black floating in the lentils.  In the heart of this kaleidoscopic celebration of the written word and ideas shared from across the planet, with the presence of authors such as Ben Okri, Tom Stoppard, AC Grayling and Fatima Bhutto, a familiar Indian figure of silence is trying to close in and steal the show.

The controversy over whether Salman Rushdie will or won’t attend the Festival has been causing a mild stir across front pages in India all week, since the Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic seminary pressured organizers into trying to withdraw their invitation to Rushdie. Although India’s intelligentsia is up in arms, the country’s media and politicians are silent, or worse, pandering to the myopia which threatens the plutocracy. This is old hat in a country that for decades has allowed a conspiracy of silence to cover up any serious debate about freedom of expression.

 Grounded in censorship laws that stemmed from the British Empire, India’s artists and writers often have experienced a democracy more concerned with insult than ideas. Insult to right wing Hindu sentiment, created politically in the early 1990s, led to the retreat and eventual death in exile of MF Hussain, the great Indian artist who dared to paint images that inspired him. It mattered that he was Muslim, and that he sometimes chose to depict Hindu goddesses, never mind that it is precisely that cultural interchange of Islam and Hinduism that has created modern India. Nobody please mention the Kama Sutra. There should have been a national uproar that an artist of his standing was forced to seek refuge away from its democratic borders. Instead, there was mostly an embarrassed silence. Likewise, there should have been incredulity when charges of sedition were first postulated against author-activist Arundhati Roy for her comments on Kashmir that were allegedly anti-Indian. She was a national heroine when she won the Booker, but when she broke the conspiracy of silence on uncomfortable matters, she was moulded into a national pariah. The Indian author Siddhartha Deb also found himself in court last year when an injunction was slapped on a chapter of his book, The Beautiful and the Damned, without warning. Two weeks ago Balbir Krishnan, an artist from Uttar Pradesh, was attacked in Delhi, ostensibly because his artistic themes of homosexuality offended and ‘provoked’ religious sentiment.  The attempts to lock Rushdie out of his motherland are just another illustration of what happens when the State allows the language of insult to dictate its law and policy. It is a dangerous basis for the ban which inevitably seems to follow these calls, and a serious blunt edge to the vibrancy with which democracy can flourish.

The consequences of this attempt to silence authors and artists goes far beyond whether an Islamic seminary doesn’t like The Satanic Verses, although it is doubtful anybody agitating against Rushdie has even read it, not least because it remains banned in India. If insult is the permission for provocation and violence, silence is the tool by which impunity prospers. The failures to bring justice against the perpetrators of mass violence in Gujarat, Punjab, Assam and Kashmir are the flipside of a democracy which likes to snuff out difficult questions before they are voiced. A failure to protect freedom of expression can in the end lead to a failure to protect the most basic human rights of all.

 In a country that is so tolerant of eccentricity and diversity, intolerance should be tossed carelessly away, pushed back behind the shoulder of the law. It is high time for the nonsense of the fatwa to be decried. State silence in the face of alleged religious insult is a greater threat to democracy that the Satanic Verses could ever become. Come on India. Un-ban the book.

January 19th 2012, India

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