I found myself in a TV studio in New Delhi last week, facing a “Muslim political leader” who was very angry with me. Luckily, he was 900 miles away, on a satellite link from south India. “I dare you,” he shouted, “to go and stand in Trafalgar Square and say the Holocaust did not happen! I dare you to go to Paris and say the Armenians were never massacred!” Never having been in any doubt about the Holocaust, nor ignorant of the massacre of Armenians, I was confused as to why I should do this. Next day, on another TV program, another “Muslim leader” raged at me, demanding, “I dare you to go to London and abuse Jesus Christ! See if they put up with it!” I didn’t have time to tell him about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but I don’t think he was there to hear arguments; he was there to be seen by the people of his constituency, shouting at “liberals” like me. What the Holocaust and the massacre of Armenians were being equated with was the “insult” Salman Rushdie is supposed to have leveled at the Prophet Muhammad in his book The Satanic Verses. I was being asked to go and deny the Holocaust (while insulting Jesus Christ) in Britain because I had challenged the assertion that Rushdie had insulted Muhammad in his book. We were arguing on TV because these leaders were accusing me of having committed a crime at the Jaipur Literature Festival: in tandem with a fellow writer and friend, I had read out a passage from The Satanic Verses at the end of our own book reading there.
Over the last several years, the Jaipur festival has attracted world-famous writers. The buzz is palpable as people queue up to attend free sessions on topics that range from Sufi poetry to urban noir fiction to the history of medieval India to contemporary erotic writing, listen to live music in the evenings, and ask questions and request autographs from celebrities. Several different Indias overlap here: the cultured middle class, the glitterati who descend to catch culture while showing off their couture, the huge tourism industry of Rajasthan, and the politicians who come to bask in the buzz. This year, however, a different India demanded entry at the gates: the India of godly power centers, which deploys “religious issues” and “minority sentiments” against intellectual freedom; the India of mob politics; the India where people cannot read books, in this instance led by people who seem not to want their followers to be able to read.
The “mistake” the organizers made this year was not only to invite Rushdie but also to announce it in advance. He had been one of the brightest lights of the festival in 2007, but had come unannounced—a surprise bonus, departing as discreetly as he’d arrived. This year, three things toppled into each other. First, the fringe Muslim groups, whose default position is to oppose Rushdie’s presence in India, received advance notice. Second, the forthcoming elections in neighboring Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), the most populous state in the country, raised the ante for political posturing before potential voters. Third, India’s media gave the groups coverage far in excess of their importance on the political landscape, helping to create the controversy that they reported.
The protesters had asked the Indian government to deny Rushdie a visa. But Rushdie holds an Overseas Citizen of India card that obviates the need for a visa. There was no legal way in which Delhi could stop him coming. Nevertheless, as protests mounted, the Rajasthan police sought to avoid confrontation by resorting to subterfuge: they informed the organizers and Rushdie that a team of hit men assigned by somebody in the Mumbai underworld were on their way to “eliminate” the author. The apparently authoritative news of a threat to his life caused Rushdie to cancel his trip, but a few days later, new information emerged: Mumbai police, the supposed source of the information, denied having passed on any such intelligence to Rajasthan police, security experts laughed at the cartoon gangster names in the paperwork, and the state administration found itself clutching beltless trousers.
The poet Jeet Thayil and I did our reading on the day before the news broke of this phantom hit team. We also read an hour after two other writers, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar, who’d had the same idea, were stopped from reading aloud from a passage of the novel. By 8 p.m., the four of us transgressors found ourselves in a tense conference with the festival’s organizers: Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple, and Sanjoy Roy. We were told that we’d broken the law and put the festival as well as public peace in jeopardy. By the next day, each of us was separately told we were in danger of being arrested and were advised to leave. As we later confirmed, not only had we not broken any law, but there was in fact no formal police complaint against us; the organizers were merely keen to get us troublemakers off the premises.
The final act in this farce of a literature festival dedicated to freedom of expression being defeated by the forces of religious fundamentalism came when the organizers were told that they would not be allowed to hold a videoconference with Rushdie. Even his virtual presence in a conversation on literature was deemed unacceptable by the mobs who stood around at the festival grounds, making the threat of violence all too clear. By the end of the day, one of the organizers was in tears, the audience was stunned in disbelief, and triumphant protesters celebrated their belief. The whole travesty took place in front of the cameras of the national news channels. Whatever victory the fringe objectors may be celebrating, there’s a good chance that they have handed the U.P. elections to the party they would least want to see in power: the Hindu right-wing party, the BJP.