After five days of dominating the Jaipur literary festival without even stepping foot in it, Sir Salman Rushdie will bring the curtain down on the final day; he will address the gabfest by a video link with NDTV anchor Barkha Dutt as his interrogator/interlocutor. (Oh, he won’t!)
These five days have been a signal lesson in India’s slow but sure march towards illiberalism.
Over five days, we have learnt that there is no ban on reading, possessing or downloading copies of The Satanic Verses; just that the finance ministry has disallowed its import. But that has been sufficient for Islamist fundamentalists to bar Rushdie from stepping on the soil of the country of his birth.
Over five days, we have seen the Rajasthan government invent an “assassination plot” to keep Rushdie out, succeed in their efforts, and then deny their concoction. Over five days, we have seen the festival’s organisers behave like Team Anna, saying one thing one moment, exactly the opposite the next moment and both sometimes (while having grand debates on censorship).
Over five days, we have seen a lawyer (Akhil Sibal)—son-in-law of one of the organisers (Namita Gokhale) and son of the Union IT minister (Kapil Sibal)—who “defended” M.F. Husain when he was being targeted Hindu fundamentalists, being deployed to urge authors (like Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Ruchir Joshi, Jeet Thayil) to sign papers that they read passages from the book so on their own volition, and so on.
What is the one question Sir Salman Rushdie must be asked this afternoon?
“By behaving in this fashion, can [India] any more lay claim to the title of a civilised society? Is it no longer permissible, in modern, supposedly secular India, for literature to treat such themes? What sort of India do you wish to govern? Is it to be an open or a repressive society?”
Cartoon: courtesy Surendra/ The Hindu
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