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Writers take a stand against Rushdie ban

By Salil Tripathi / 23 January, 2012

As the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s withdrawal from the Jaipur Literary Festival rumbles on, Indian writers are organising against censorship

Liverpool had its Fab Four, but now Jaipur in India has its own Fab Five — writers Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, Ruchir Joshi and Anand.

When the Rajasthan police apparently concocted a fictitious assassination plot leading Salman Rushdie to stay away from the Jaipur Literature Festival, the mood in Jaipur was glum. Everyone took the plot to be real, until The Hindu reported the convoluted manipulation by the police.

Many in India wanted to hear Rushdie, who avoided India during the fatwa years and has been able to make only a few visits since 2000. Festival goers were hoping to hear him speak about the filming of Midnight’s Children and his forthcoming memoir. But protests from Muslim groups and the plausible threat made him change his mind.

Which is where the Fab Four came in. On Friday, Poughkeepsie, NY-based Kumar, who teaches at Vassar and who has irritated Hindu nationalists in the past with his magnificent, in-your-face memoir, Husband of a Fanatic started reading passages from The Satanic Verses. Hari Kunzru, a British-Indian novelist based in New York  also took a stand at the same panel discussion. Both novelists stopped reading after the alarmed festival organisers pleaded with them.

Kunzru, a former English PEN vice-president, takes freedom of expression seriously. When the European Writers’ Parliament met in Istanbul and Turkish authors protested against the presence of VS Naipaul, forcing Naipaul to cancel his appearance, Kunzru spoke out. Reading from Rushdie’s controversial novel was no different.

The mood in Jaipur had changed. By  Friday afternoon, unexpectedly, the poet and novelist Jeet Thayil picked another passage from The Satanic Verses, and read aloud. Finally, Ruchir Joshi, film-maker and novelist, whose magical The Last Jet-Engine Laugh is an uproarious account of a futuristic India, read from The Satanic Verses. Tensions rose.

Soon thereafter, the police arrived, making inquiries about illegal conduct at the festival. Importing The Satanic Verses into India is prohibited but the law is unclear if possessing the novel is a crime, or reading aloud an extract from it is a crime. A lawyer or the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, the only local civil society group to support Rushdie last week, said that as the four authors read extracts from downloads, and not a book, it may not be a crime. Shashi Tharoor, novelist, diplomat, and parliamentarian pointed out he has routinely quoted and cited from The Satanic Verses and never been troubled.

In any case, the police should not throw around terms terms such as “guilt” and “crime”, as they have been doing, when they haven’t filed charges, nor proved their case before a judge.

The government could claim that by reading from the novel the authors incited the public. But incited to do what? Demand overturning the ban, nothing more. In fact, eyewitnesses say that the four authors were listened to in respectful silence, and warmly applauded. In any case, if the government wishes to proceed against the authors and is really mean-spirited, it could do so under S. 295A which gives the state the power to use criminal law against individuals who may have intended to cause trouble. But was there criminal intent, or mens rea? Sure, this is defiance, and it challenges a governmental act but it is Gandhian in its peaceful nature.

Police are seeking recordings of the reading, which, at the time of writing, the festival organisers are refusing to hand over. It is clear that the Rajasthan Police’s actions are meant to intimidate the authors and their supporters.

The role of the festival organisers — while their position is delicate — also requires scrutiny. If an author read from Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, or Liu Xiaobo’s poems, or displayed Ai Wei Wei’s art at a public event in China, one would expect that the police would swoop down, and the organisers would very likely be forced to hand over the author to the Chinese security.

But this is India; a nation that holds elections, calls itself a democracy, and has a constitution that offers some protection for free speech. The actions of the Indian government in recent days, the intimidation of the five writers and its pusillanimity over Rushdie’s visit fall considerably short of India’s aspirations and claims.

While the organisers haven’t yet handed over the tapes, they told the authors to leave Jaipur immediately, lest they be arrested. It is not known if they offered them any protection. Worse, a lawyerly statement was issued, which in effect blamed the authors for “disturbing the peace”, because they acted outside the confines of the law. The organisers dissociated themselves from the action — which they can make a case for,  but did not uphold the four’s right to speak freely, which is harder to justify. They should have said that even though they disagreed with the action, they’d defend the principle of free speech. But India isn’t there yet, it seems.

Future participants, apparently, will have to conform to rules not yet defined, so that they act within the confines of the law. Such rules defeat the rationale of a festival of literature, where ideas are expressed to be argued over and debated; such rules restrict fundamental freedoms.

On Sunday, the writer Anand —who publishes dalit literature under the imprint Navayana — joined the protests, reading an eloquent passage from The Satanic Verses, which underscores the spirit of the protests:

What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive: or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits: but, the hundredth time, will change the world.

On Monday, leading Indian writers began to circulate a petition to the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, calling for the ban on The Satanic Verses to be lifted. The battle to undo the damage of the past quarter century has begun.

There are no ifs and buts. As Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses:

A Poets work (is) to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.

It is time for India to wake up.

Sign the petition for the ban on The Satanic Verses to be lifted

Salil Tripathi is a journalist and author and the chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee

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About Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer and frequent contributor to Index on Censorship. He co-chairs English PEN's Writers At Risk Committee and is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull Books) http://saliltripathi.wordpress.com/

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19 Responses to Writers take a stand against Rushdie ban

  1. Pingback: India’s flourishing offence industry hits literary festival – again | UNCUT

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  5. Uzoozy Reply

    3 February at 00:59

    This book is blasphamy. Only those who are affected feel it.
    Salman should have picked some other topic name or scenerio.
    He should pay for his deeds.
    At least he has to look over his shoulders wherever he goes, that in itself is enough torture.
    When your own parents die is when you feel the pain.
    The book has no real merits except he made money at others expense
    Salman Rush-die should be banned from India.

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  8. Jill Johnson Reply

    24 January at 22:24

    Are we burning books again? Censorship is wrong.

  9. Priya Sarukkai Chabria Reply

    24 January at 12:45

    Freedom of expression is my birthright and I shall have it. This makes us be what we are. Stand up for it.

  10. Priya Sarukkai Chabria Reply

    24 January at 12:43

    Freedom of expression is my birthright and I shall have it. This makes us be what we are. Stand up for it!

  11. Pingback: ‘WRITERS TAKE A STAND AGAINST RUSHDIE BAN’ by Salil Tripathi « Uddari Weblog

  12. N. Jayaram Reply

    24 January at 01:56

    Not only should Prime Minister Singh lift the ban forthwith, he should
    — apologise to Mr Rushdie for the events of the past few days
    — apologise to the nation and the world at large for the sordid mess
    — invite Mr Rushdie as guest of his government to visit India at his convenience and during that visit invite him to a dinner attended by his cabinet colleagues and assorted chief ministers so that the apology can be delivered in person.

  13. Naiyar Jafri Reply

    23 January at 16:17

    Freedom of speech does not give one a right to incite trouble. Without control there will be total anarchy. India is a multicultural Nation and its fabric is too weak to play around with the notions that look good with the developed countries.

  14. Parth Reply

    23 January at 14:16

    On record, I read this blog but not the passages qouted in between. :-I

  15. Amein Zahid Reply

    23 January at 14:01

    According to the archaic laws of India http://codexhammurabi.blogspot.com/

    Reading passages from a book “whereof have been declared to be forfeited to Government under any law for the time being in force, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.”

    From the above passage it is certain that the ‘offending’ authors certainly broke the law.

    Raising the issue should not be confined to lifting the ban on the Satanic Verses but should be viwed in a larger context of removing censorship in its entirety.

    A battle merely to lift the ban on Satanic Verses is merely symbolic in nature and does not win the war against censorship.

    But then as HariKunzro says there is a difference beween hate speech and freedom of expression but then again where do we draw the line? Who decides?

  16. gregorylent Reply

    23 January at 13:53

    not his best novel, i found it unreadable. it would perhaps have disappeared into the bins, if not for the publicity.

    ego and emotional immaturity … how to adjust for them in ways that help people and cultures to grow up?

  17. anis ansari Reply

    23 January at 13:10

    I didnt read satanic verses. But just read the quotes in this article. does that make me a criminal ?

  18. Subir Ghosh Reply

    23 January at 12:16

    There’s only one thing that I disagree with Salil here. There have been many wake-up calls in both in the recent and non-so-distant past. This is the time for action. Now is the time for assertion.

  19. Rimi B. Chatterjee Reply

    23 January at 11:48

    This is a mark of shame against us Indian citizens, one of many such marks, such as the hounding of M.F. Husain who wasn’t even allowed to return here before his death. Three of the five writers have homes abroad, but two live here. They showed all the more courage in daring to stand up for free speech. We all stand with them.

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