Jaipur Saga Bigger Than Assassination Threats Against Salman Rushdie

The threats underscored what’s wrong with India and its reaction to extremism today, says Suhel Seth.

Indranil Mukherjee, AFP / Getty Images

Somehow India remembers everything about Mahatma Gandhi except what he stood for. Politicians seek votes in his name, civilian protests invoke his teachings, and the entire country still reveres the man who gave India its freedom. But it’s that very freedom that today’s India is willing to tamper with.

The secular fabric India once boasted of has become tattered as the country lurches from one crisis to another. The Jaipur Literature Festival, described by Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown as “the greatest literary show on earth,” is being held hostage by lunatic fringe groups. Threats against the author Salman Rushdie have succeeded in keeping him away, tarnishing a festival that has and will continue, one hopes, to salute the free-spirited mind.

The controversy over Rushdie’s participation acquired an ugly theological-political color that was both devious and clearly manipulated, with India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, heading to the polls in two months. But then this has become the leitmotif of Indian politics: what is utterly despicable is the spread of this malaise that now touches everything, including ideologically neutral events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival.

My anger is not just with those who threatened Rushdie’s assassination and the use of violence but with the Indian state and those who govern it today. It’s one thing to be a soft state when you are under attack by state and non-state actors under the guise of terrorism or communal riots. It is quite another for the Indian government to collapse whenever fringe groups raise their heads to protest free thought using religion as an excuse. It is this capitulation that is worrying.

What is equally becoming India’s theme song is its return to caveman tactics whenever there is a hint of dissent. No country can afford disagreement to turn into hatred. Especially not a country like India, which must come to terms both with its multiculturalism and its caste and religious mix. We cannot and must not wish away the 150 million Muslims who are part of the 1.2 billion population of India, but on the other hand, minority appeasement, which is used at the drop of a hat to gain electoral victories, is not an enduring proposition. So what do we do and where do we go from here?

Can we allow a deranged few to disrupt the sanity that an entire nation believes in? Can we allow liberal voices to be snuffed out at the altar of violence? Or should we raise our voices, though not with the shrillness and ugliness that some silly authors did last week? What Ruchir Joshi and his ilk did by reading out passages of ++Rushdie’s banned book, The Satanic Verses, was damning and threatened the existence of the festival.

Authors like Joshi must remember that they are playing into the hands of the fundamentalists by protesting in the manner they did. Equally sad is the role that many members of the Indian media have played. The festival, set in the historic Diggi Palace at Jaipur, now attracts 60,000 people, and it is not about one author—nor are literature festivals a delight because of the controversies they engender. There is a certain gentleness that is and must be part of any such festival, as must democratic principles bereft of extremism of any kind.

That is the India we were, and that is the India we must return to: where the head was held high and without fear. Not a head that bows to extremism and dark forces whose business it has become to extinguish the virtues of free speech and free thought.

For me personally, the whole Rushdie saga is not about a literature festival being under attack. It is much bigger and deeper than that. It is a reflection of the times we live in, a symbol of the rage and violence that has become the political idiom.

Like most things, this too shall pass. But until it does, we need to be cognizant that every fundamentalist would love for us to behave in the way they do. It would give them a level playing field. They would want us to fight on the same battleground. That would be the easy way out.

More than at any other time, today is when we need to invoke the Gandhi within us. To forgive and forget and move on. Not to take issue with them and make their disgusting movement relevant or rewarding.