Thursday, January 26, 2012

In supporting Rushdie, don't throw out the Jaipur Lit Fest bathwater

In 1996, in a book release in Washington DC, I posed this question to Salman Rushdie: You have been born a Muslim, and you knew the reaction something like The Satanic Verses would have in the community. So why did you write it?” Rushdie was a bit taken aback, and his somewhat fumbling response was anodyne— about coming to terms with himself and the faith he was born into and so on.
Many Indians, not all fundamentalists, have been a bit uncomfortable with the seeming auto da fé being conducted in Jaipur in the past week, but they are equally bemused by the way in which Rushdie has posed The Satanic Verses as a free speech issue. You don’t wave a red rag at a bull, and then complain when it charges at you. It is not just Muslims—say something derogatory about any of the Sikh gurus, or question Lord Rama’s character in a tea shop in a UP town and you are liable to be at the receiving end of extreme violence.

Most Indians, who live in a crazy quilt of caste and ethnicities know where the red lines are, though as the banning of Ramanujan’s essays on the Ramayana in Delhi University reveals, these lines are changing and becoming narrower. It should not be forgotten that Rushdie, though born in India, is part of the western intellectual tradition which takes for granted certain liberties and rights that came after centuries of struggle there. In India, we have been trying to telescope that experience in a half century. Though our founding fathers gave us a good kick-off, the game has floundered in the past two decades.
Actually, the controversy in Jaipur was not about The Satanic Verses. As Javed Akhtar put it, “You may ban a film, but can you ban a film maker?” It was about Rushdie being able to move around freely and express his views on issues other than The Satanic Verses. India may have a case to ban that book in the interest of public order, but to ban Rushdie’s video link is quite different, and points to an uncomfortable edge of intolerance that we have arrived at in the 21st century. By the way,  you can ban film makers, as the mullahs in Iran or the commissars in China have done. But as in the case of the Internet, have we reached a point where we measure our liberties with those of North Korea, China and Iran? 

But, the Rushdie issue was not just about Muslim hotheads who had threatened violence at the otherwise remarkably peaceable literary fest. It was also about the manipulation of an incident for electoral gain. Make no mistake, the Muslim Manch and the various fire-breathing maulanas were merely the tools of cynical parties which used them for their purposes. Unfortunately, the negative consequences of the controversy will be to deepen the stereotyping of Muslims as being “different” from us, more violent and intolerant. The facts, of course, are that “the different” are us, and in every community today you have people who will resort to violence at every slight, mostly imagined, on their faith.
On Monday, a police officer recounted to me an incident that had taken place recently in a town in the south-eastern part of the state, in a locality next to a Muslim ghetto. A young man, wearing a blood spattered kurta pyjama had stumbled into a bazaar saying that he had been stabbed by people in the Muslim locality. The canny local police officer immediately took him to  hospital and insisted on calling a doctor to examine him in his presence. The young man’s demeanour suddenly changed, he said he would manage on his own and begged to be let off. Then, when the doctor arrived and stripped the “patient”, it became apparent that he had not received a single wound, and had merely been play acting on behalf of some people who had paid him for the purpose.

The sinister aim was obvious— trigger communal violence. Such incidents are common in the long and sordid history of communal violence in India. To say dark forces are afoot in the country would not be an exaggeration. Witness the outrageous incident staged by the Ram Sene on the New Year’s day  when they hoisted a Pakistani flag atop the tehsildar’s office at Singdi town near Bijapur in Karnataka. The idea was to blame the local Muslim community, trigger violence and gain political ground.
If there is a positive takeaway from the Rushdie incident, it is that it brought to the fore for the Indian public, or at least the better-off classes, the contradictions of modern India. At one level, they live in a democracy that promises all the freedoms that their cherished West offers, at another, they are besieged by forces of obscurantism and violence which try to pull them back to the medieval ages in which many of our religious and political leaders live. Yet, we cannot be unaware that we live on the edge of anarchy, public order is tenuous, and a small spark can set off a big blaze. And that we have leaders who first see which way public opinion, or the street is headed, and then take a stand on an issue.
The Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) is an enormous gift to the country. A compressed intellectual fest— where Harvard’s Steven Pinker can comfort us  that violence has indeed declined through history, Abhijit Bannerjee of MIT refines his ideas about the choices we need to make to eliminate poverty, or a Richard Dawkins speaks of  the death of religion— has an immediate resonance in contemporary India, but largely to a certain growing middle class. Beyond their ideas, you cannot but think of the intellectual process from which they have emerged and the environment in which they flourish. This is a world which we can only aspire to at this juncture.
The JLF has provided the Indian middle class the opportunity to hear Pinker, Dawkins, Oprah Winfrey, Sunil Khilnani, Ben Okri, Mohammed Hanif and scores of other writers, novelists, intellectuals and personalities. It is, in its own way, a major effort to keep open the shutting minds in the country. They do not merely challenge orthodoxy, but our increasingly shoddy intellectual culture and its third-rate higher education system.

In the end, the battle is for the middle class mind. It is the ideas and aspirations of this class that shape the intellectual traditions of the nation. As of now inborn  ignorance, prejudice, “localitis” is tugging at this mind. But in the past decade of economic growth, the rise of information and communication technologies has given these Indians an enormous sense that they are part of the larger, dynamic world, and this is manifested by the crowds thronging the JLF. 
Among the audience you can see young women and men who had travelled from far, not just the cities of the state like Jodhpur and Ajmer, but smaller towns like Bhilwara and Tonk, and beyond—Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. There were students from “deemed universities” as well as from the best colleges of the country. Given his background, Rushdie does protest too much, and it would be a pity if in defending him, we end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
That is because ideas are strange things, you never know when or where they flower. But you do require a seeding, and that is what the JLF has been doing in organising the unique intellectual mela in Jaipur for the past several years.
Mail Today January 26, 2012

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