Rushdie visit: Nonsense over non-issue
Are you surprised by the demand to deny Salman Rushdie an Indian visa? Well, Rushdie clearly was. As he tweeted, he doesn’t need a visa to visit India because he is a Person of Indian Origin and therefore entitled to come and go as he pleases.
But, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I was half expecting something like this when I heard that Rushdie would be at the Jaipur Literary Festival in February.
I know that the demand makes no logical sense. The protests against Rushdie date back to the publication (or non-publication, at least in India) of The Satanic Verses over two decades ago. It doesn’t matter to the protestors that the controversy occurred so long ago. Or even that the Iranians have forgotten about the fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding for so many years.
Nor does it matter that Rushdie has, in fact, been to India several times since the fatwa fuss died down. Nor have these been secret visits. He has made public speeches, given TV interviews and spoken his mind freely.
So, why make this demand now, 20 years after the event when previous Rushdie visits seem to have passed off peacefully?
The answer has to do with politics.
It is widely believed that the Muslim vote may hold the key to victory in the forthcoming UP Assembly election. Three of the four parties in the fray – the Congress, the BSP and the SP – are actively courting Muslim voters. Because it is easier to court organisations rather than individual voters, politicians have been sucking up to religious and social organisations that claim to have influence with Muslim voters.
Inevitably, when this process begins, the organisations that are being courted adopt extreme positions and play to the lowest common religious denominator. They suggest that the establishment is insensitive to Muslim demands and ask for proof that politicians are committed to Muslim interests.
Sadly for Indian Muslims – and this is a tragedy that has spanned many decades – these demands are nearly always regressive, intolerant or framed in terms of religious extremism.
Thus, instead of asking for measures that will improve the economic prospects of the community, Muslim leaders and organisations will pull out the same old demands: about the right to continue to have four wives and preserve a regressive personal law, the right not to give women a fair deal and of course, the right to persecute Salman Rushdie.
Sometimes – all too often, in fact – politicians do give in to these demands. Or, at the very least, they promise to give them sympathetic consideration.
The net effect is to harden the image of India’s Muslims as a backward, illiberal community that is unwilling to integrate and treats religious extremism as a legitimate way of expressing its identity.
The genuine problems that Indian Muslims have – poverty, lack of access to education, discrimination in the workplace, official apathy, etc. – get lost in the mix. Instead, religious issues take centre stage. And non-Muslims begin to say things like, “Why are these guys so illiberal?”
The end result is to give the RSS’ publicists and pamphleteers the day off. Why bother to caricature Indian Muslims as primitive extremists when the community’s own leaders do such a good job of perpetuating the caricature themselves?
I was pleased to see that, on this occasion at least, the government did not give in to this kind of vote bank blackmail. The cynical view is that the Congress has calculated that The Satanic Verses issue does not resonate with young Muslims, the vast majority of whom have no idea who Salman Rushdie is. The charitable view is that somebody in authority has decided that we cannot keep sacrificing the principles on which the liberal society is founded (free speech, for instance) at the altar of vote-bank politics or only to keep the peace. (The reason for the original Satanic Verses ban was because the government feared that publication of the book would lead to riots – a self-fulfilling prophecy in a country where there is somebody always ready to organise a riot on demand.)
I hope now that we extend this principle to cover other cases where free speech is involved. The government did not do enough to protect MF Husain. And any organisation that wants to get a book banned has only to threaten violence for publishers to cave in – because they know that the police will not protect them.
Ultimately, books and authors do not have the power to damage our society. But we do. Each time we ban a book or blacklist an author, we betray the principles that our society is founded on. And slowly but surely, we take power away from the people and hand it over to the bullies.