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Rushdie affair: India’s hour of shame

  • This blog, it might be worth reminding, closely monitors India’s steps and mis-steps as it strides on the global stage. On that count, it couldn’t have embarrassed itself more when it played a cheap trick to keep one of its finest authors since Independence, Salman Rushdie, from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival.
    It is not clear who exactly masterminded the subterfuge but suffice it to say Indian authorities did so after all efforts — or, rather, threats by an Islamic group and others — to dissuade the British-Indian novelist had failed. They did so by fabricating an assassination plot and scaring away a man who has, for a large part of his life, suffered under a death sentence issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. When Rushdie first faced that fatwa in the late 1980s, months after publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel that allegedly hurt Islamic sentiments, the British government spent millions of pounds to provide its adopted citizen the best round-the-clock security cover. It is shameful that India — the birthplace of Rushdie — declined to give its own son adequate security for just a few days.
    The Hindu, which uncovered the “fabricated plot,” called it a “national shame,” taking aim squarely at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, more than anybody else, in a hard-hitting editorial.
    “Rushdie is entitled to a full apology for this shameful episode and to an unconditional assurance that he is welcome in India at any time and place. Prime Minister Singh must ensure he receives both,” the daily said.
    Many other commentators have bemoaned India’s conduct. Among them, two are worth reading. One is by Salil Tripathi in the business daily Mint; and the other is by Aditya Sinha in the Mumbai daily DNA.
    “Writers should not need armies to protect them in a free society. That Rushdie might need protection in India reflects poorly—not on him, but on India,” Tripathi concludes. Sinha ends similarly: ‘In effect, after many years Rushdie has, successfully if not deliberately, held a mirror up to us. We ought to cringe at what we see.”
    I would like to believe the broader Indian society was ready to forget and forgive Rushdie but the political class was busy trying to play mischief to serve their own narrow interests. Rather than liberating India’s millions from divisions of religion and caste, some political party desperate to win Muslim votes in the upcoming election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the one with the largest number of Muslims, rustled up the issue. And before you knew it, almost all political parties had joined the game in utter disregard of civil liberties and propriety.
    The fact is, Rushdie has visited India several times since 2000. None of his visits caused any uproar whatsoever. Besides, nearly 24 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, few young Muslims know anything about Rushdie’s book, and the older generation of Muslims has simply not read the book. After all, Penguin India decided not to publish the controversial book in India (on the advice of Khushwant Singh) and months after its publication overseas, India banned The Satanic Verses anyway.
    The least India can do now, besides apologizing to Rushdie — as The Hindu has demanded — is to stop any possible witch hunt against four writers who read out from The Satanic Verses in defiance after the novelist had been kept out of Jaipur. All four are of Indian origin, but two (Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi) are residents of India.
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