Most of what I’ve been reading on Penguin India’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History is fairly similar: outraged and persuasive. I even wrote such a piece myself. But Eric Gurevitch’s analysis on the Asymptote blog is something a bit different, putting the controversy in a much more focused literary context. Worth reading here.
Today was day one of the four day long Film Southasia festival of documentary films. It is being held at the QFX Kumari cinema in Kathmandu, and runs until Sunday 6th October. I was blogging on it today for the FSA website (rather challenging as the wifi was out for much of the day). For news info on the films, check out the blog and the FSA website: http://www.filmsouthasia.org/blog/ / http://www.filmsouthasia.org/
The major news of today was that the Sri Lankan government has pressured the Nepali government into banning the screening of the three Sri Lankan films that were part of the festival. This goes against the entire ethos of the festival, and the organisers of FSA refuse to be silenced by the governments of Sri Lanka and Nepal. As Kanak Mani Dixit, Chair of FSA and Editor of Himal Southasian, stated, the spaces for open dialogue are being steadily constricted in this country (Nepal), and this…
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This last week or two have been pretty eventful in the Indian literary world. The Jaipur Literature Festival, held for five days over the last weekend, made headlines in India and around the world for the “would he, wouldn’t he?” appearance of Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is a controversial figure in India, as he arguably is everywhere, where The Satanic Verses is banned. But, as a person of Indian origin he regularly travels to India without hindrance, and attended the Jaipur festival previously, in 2007. So, why was his attendance this year mired in so much controversy? Commentary would suggest that frenzied opinion (of the negative type) was whipped up by people with political interests because it so happens that Uttar Pradesh, India’s post populous (and some might say populist) state is holding elections very soon. The Muslim vote is very valuable here, and suggesting that Rushdie might be coming to India to insult Islam was obviously considered a way of being seen to be looking out for Muslim interests by some politicians.
So, Rushdie hesitated over whether to attend the festival. After receiving “intelligence” that paid assassins had been sent from the Bombay underworld to take him out, he cancelled. As it turns out, this intelligence seems to have been faulty, exaggerated, or actually just completely fabricated, and Rushdie has now expressed regret that he took it seriously. But, given the risk that he might be attacked, putting himself and the entire festival at risk, it’s understandable that he acted as he did.
The saga gets more complicated. After pulling out, Rushdie was meant to appear at the festival via video-link, but even this was threatened with disruption, so was cancelled. In response and protest to this silencing/censorship, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar on one panel, and Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi on another, completely independently of each other, read passages from the banned The Satanic Verses and spoke in support of Rushdie. Though I don’t know exactly which passages were read, Hari Kunzru has written eloquently over the last few days about the event and he stresses that he did NOT read anything that could in any way have been deemed offensive by any religious community. His intention was not to offend anyone, but to make a point and stand up for Rushdie, who he feels has been unfairly demonised in India, so he deliberately chose passages that could not be misconstrued. Nevertheless, this act was deemed illegal, and upon hurried legal advice, all four men left the festival and the state of Rajasthan, and Kunzru left India for his home in the UK, out of fear of arrest. The organisers of the festival distanced themselves from the four speakers’ actions, stating that they had spoken independently and had not advised them of what they were going to do, a claim backed up by Kunzru.
OK, that’s the saga in a nutshell. What it leaves is a very timely and important debate around censorship in India. On the one hand, you could say that the festival organisers did what they had to do (regarding Rushdie and Kunzru et al) in order to keep the other speakers and the audience safe, and the festival free of unrest or violence (as could have easily happened). There had also been suggestions that if they had not distanced themselves from the Satanic Verse readings, the remaining days of the festival might have been cancelled, a situation that would not have been good for anyone. OK, fair enough. You can’t blame them, one could say.
BUT. When things like this happen in India, those who should be supporting the free-speech advocates or those that have broken some kind of taboo too often get scared off and do not give the support they should. Maybe the festival organisers were acting in the best interests of everyone, but if I were them, I would have been pretty pissed off at having my literature festival dictated to in such a manner, messed around until the last minute, receiving threats. All the more reason to do the right thing and, if the loss of Rushdie couldn’t be helped, at least backed the actions of Kunzru et al. Idealistic maybe, but I don’t see how things can change unless the literary and artistic world actually start backing each other when they should. If they don’t speak out for each other–like Kunzru admirably did–nobody else is going to. Formal, state-imposed censorship tends not to be too much of a problem in India–writers are generally pretty free to write what they want–but when these notable exceptions take place, they really are quite notable.
All this sounds like the plot of a good Rushdie novel, and I hope he uses this material somehow, so it doesn’t all seem so futile. I am ashamed to say that I have never actually read The Satanic Verses (not out of ideological objection, I just haven’t got around to it) but I am going to make a point of doing so now.
Interesting blog entry from the BBC’s Soutik Biswas:
Rushdie should make a point and show up, and defy the Muslim and Hindu hardliners who try to curtail artistic and literary freedom. Its particularly disappointing that Rajasthan’s chief minister has stated he would prefer it if Rushdie stays away. As Biswas says, “A no-show would be another damning indictment of a country which never tires of advertising itself as the world’s largest democracy. This is the time to stand up.”
Having said that, I was at the Jaipur literature festival in 2011 with a predicted sixty thousand people in a relatively small area, and I don’t think I’d want to be in such a small, crowded space if any trouble did occur. While it is commendable that it is a completely free event, it was already groaning at the seams, especially over the weekend days. If Rushdie does show up, I hope the organisers have been perfecting their crowd control.
Sorry I couldn’t be there in 2012, though.