A recent incident involving Salman Rushdie’s cancelled appearance at a premier Indian literary event reflects badly on the world’s largest democracy.
The brouhaha began when the head of a prominent Muslim seminary in India asked the government not to issue a visa to Rushdie to attend a literature event in the city of Jaipur because Rushdie “had annoyed the religious sentiments of Muslims in the past.” From there, things went downhill. The chief minister (the Indian equivalent of governor) in charge of the state of which Jaipur is the capital declared that Rushdie wasn’t welcome there. In the end, Rushdie decided to bow out.
"I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to 'eliminate' me," Rushdie said in a statement read out at the literary gathering. "While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances—irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers.”
As Rushdie and I both suspected, the supposed assassination plot has subsequently been revealed as quite certainly a hoax concocted by the state authorities of Rajasthan (where Jaipur is located) to spare themselves the trouble of protecting Rushdie and dealing with the political fallout.
The whole affair must have reawakened painful memories for Rushdie. Back in 1988, the Indian government was the first in the world to essentially ban “Satanic Verses,” thus initiating a chain of events that resulted in possibly the most famous free speech battle in recent times.
Now, those of you who view the Rushdie cancellation as just another example of radical Muslims imposing their views, be assured that the Indian government is an equal opportunity appeaser. The Indian government has caved in again and again in the recent past to hardliners of assorted backgrounds. India’s most famous painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, was forced to live in exile for the last few years of his life because the Indian government couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t be jailed or prosecuted after some Hindus took umbrage at the Muslim painter’s depiction of Hindu goddesses. Hollywood’s “The Da Vinci Code” was banned in a number of Indian states (an unwitting blessing for the residents), as demanded by some Christians. Books deemed insulting to Indian gods or historical figures have been proscribed or withdrawn from syllabuses repeatedly. (The current rightwing leader of Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat, infamous for engineering an anti-Muslim pogrom, attempted to defend the legacy of the Mahatma by banning Joseph Lelyveld’s controversial biography about him last year.) And a number of Bollywood films have run into rough weather for allegedly hurting the sentiments of one community or the other. Astute commentators have noted how the Indian government’s constant pandering to religious ultrasensitivities is fast eroding the supposedly secular Indian constitution.
“The contours of the bizarre theocratic dystopia that could replace the secular state are already evident,” Praveen Swami writes in the prominent Indian daily The Hindu. “The state tells us we may not read the ‘Satanic Verses’ or Aubrey Menen's irreverent retelling of the Ramayana [an important Indian religious text]; it chooses not to prosecute the vandals who block stores from stocking D.N. Jha's masterful ‘Holy Cow,’ James Laine's history of [Indian historical icon] Shivaji, or Paul Courtright's explorations of oedipal undertones in Hindu mythology.”
India’s leading Muslim seminarian made a huge blunder in focusing on Rushdie. Indian Muslims have a litany of problems, not the least being their abysmal socioeconomic indicators.
“One would think that Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, the rector of the Darul Uloom Deoband, would know his chief priority: to ask the government to … identify the root causes and fix those, instead of tinkering at the margins,” writes Salil Tripathi in the Indian business daily The Mint. “But Nomani seems to have a more pressing concern: keeping Salman Rushdie out of the Jaipur Literature Festival. With politicians offering questionable placebos which have expired use-by dates, and clerics misdiagnosing the disease, is it any wonder that the patient’s condition remains grave?”
Besides, by showing intolerance toward Rushdie, Nomani is going against the spirit of Islam’s holy book.
“Muhammad is commanded [in the Quran] to argue with his opponents kindly but effectively and to have patience,” writes comparative religion Professor Reuven Firestone. “Hints are provided suggesting that his opponents might receive punishment at the hand of God, but it was not the role of Muhammad or the Muslim community to inflict punishment or to escalate the conflict.”
The only people who come out looking good here are some of the participants in the Jaipur festival. In protest, a number of them read out portions of “Satanic Verses.” Although (so far) the administration has decided not to prosecute these brave souls or the festival organizers, the defiant ones had to hastily leave Jaipur before the state authorities changed their mind.
By yet again showing its disdain for free speech, the Indian government has done itself a big dishonor.
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