India must choose to defend free speech

Courtesy: Index on censorship

As religious leaders call to ban Salman Rushdie from the Jaipur festival in India, Salil Tripathi reports on the countrys sepulchral silence

India used to be the land of gup, which meant talk, arguments, conversations, and debates. Babble and noise, thats what gup is. But it is fast becoming the land of chup, of sepulchral silence, where people must think twice before they say what they feel. The hushed silence that chup demands is not the respectful silence of a library, but the silence of acquiescence; the people demanding the silence are the sort to burn or ban books.

The moment the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival announced the lineup of authors attending the prestigious cultural event from 20 January which included Salman Rushdie, along with Tom Stoppard, David Remnick, Michael Ondaatje, Oprah Winfrey, and Hari Kunzru it was clear that there would be some drama. The rector of the influential Islamic seminary in Deoband did not disappoint.

Maulana Abdul Qasim Nomani asked the Indian government to cancel Rushdies visa because he had hurt the feelings of Muslims. The Indian Government said that as a person of Indian origin (and born in India), Rushdie had the papers that allowed him to enter, and the government could not stop him. Thats when other groups demanded firm action. One
group threatened to attack him and political parties joined the fray. Indias most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, goes to elections next month, and some 18 per cent of the electorate is Muslim. No party wants to offend the Muslim vote.

The controversy goes back to 1988, when Rushdie wrote the novel, The Satanic Verses. The Indian government found the book so explosive it was banned. Announcing the ban, Indian officials said their decision had nothing to do with the literary merit of the novel, but as it contained passages that could be misinterpreted, leading to violence, India thought it safer to ban the book. Rushdies earlier novel, Midnights Children, had put India on the worlds literary map.

Protests against The Satanic Verses followed worldwide, including the book being burned in Bradford in the United Kingdom. Vocal British Muslims marched in London demanding action against Rushdie (a British citizen). Britain stood firm in defending Rushdies freedom. In February 1989 the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa, calling for Rushdies death. Rushdie had to live in hiding for nearly a decade; he was able to return to some semblance of normalcy after Iran revoked the fatwa.

In the years since, Rushdie has returned to the country of his birth several times, including at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2007. The novel remains banned.

By demanding that Rushdie should not be allowed to enter India,fundamentalists are seeking to set the terms under which dialogue can occur in India. Muslims have been vocal in protesting against material they find offensive, with the Bangladesh-born novelist Tasleema Nasreen a frequent target.

But in the past quarter century, other groups have also joined in, increasing the clamor against free thought, and narrowing public discourse. Hindus drove Indias most famous painter, MF Husain, into exile, and the nonagenarian painter died in London in exile last year. Other artists have been attacked for depicting images that some groups
have found offensive last week, the painter Balbir Krishan was assaulted because his art dealt with gay themes. Delhi University withdrew an essay about the Sanskrit epic Ramayana and its variations by the late poet, AK Ramanujan, because Hindu nationalists found the essay offensive.

Mumbai University withdrew Booker Prize nominee Rohinton Mistrys novel, Such A Long Journey, after the grandson of a chauvinist politician protested that his community (Marathi-speakers) was portrayed badly in the novel.

Other groups, including barbers, police officers, cobblers, and lawyers, have protested against films at different times, getting titles changed, scenes edited, or songs dropped, because they find something in that work offensive.

The inevitable result is deadened polity. While the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties has admirably spoken out in defence of Rushdie, other Indian civil society groups have been reticent, unwilling to take on the intolerant, who respond not with argument, but with violence. A few columnists and Bollywood personalities have also criticised the
fundamentalists. But no politician of consequence has done so.

India wasnt supposed to be like that as Amartya Sen famously characterised his compatriots, Indians were supposed to be argumentative.

Stressing the importance of Rushdies voice in Jaipur, the Indian critic Nilanjana Roy pointed out: It would be a great loss if the manufactured controversy around (Rushdies) visit silenced his voice yet again. It would make India the land of chup.

In Rushdies novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech is called Khattam-Shud, and he rules a land called Chup (silence), which has a cult that promotes muteness. It is a land at peace, in harmony. But that outward stability conceals inner fragility. Such societies force their citizens to live a lie:that their contrived cheer and forced harmony are superior. Open societies appear brittle and frail because outwardly they are cacophonous, where everyone can contradict everyone else, and where nothing is sacred. But there is inner strength. As Rushdie wrote: All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them The Chupwalas (those from the silent land) turned out to be a disunited rabble, suspicious and distrustful of one another. The land of Gup (talk) is bathed in endless sunshine, while over in Chup, it is always the middle of the night.

We watch as India hovers over that precipice; it must decide what kind of society it wishes to be where, as Indias greatest poet wrote, where the mind is without fear, or where words are swallowed, lest they offend somebody.