What we need is dialogue and a language to hold that dialogue in. What transpired at Jaipur did not help that cause.
Much stardust and some moonstorms marked this year's ‘greatest literary show on earth' in Jaipur, where the appearance of Oprah was eclipsed by the mis-appearance of Salman Rushdie. Some authors protested by breaking the (largely technical) Indian ban on The Satanic Verses and read out lines from it, and some self-proclaimed defenders of the faith turned up to scream a bit more against a book they have never bothered to read. There was something magical realist about it all, and it left questions hanging like unfriendly neighbourhood fatwas in the air.
Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Indian politics would have anticipated protests by some Islamic organisation or the other when Rushdie's participation in the festival was announced, given that this is an election year in UP, a state with a large Muslim ‘electorate'. Rushdie's participation and statements against it should have been downplayed. Writers should have focused on Rushdie's participation, not on The Satanic Verses. Instead, almost everyone involved (and not involved) did a vivid impersonation of a cat on a hot tin roof!
The purpose of the call to stop Rushdie from attending was primarily to intimidate the undecided middle section of Muslims and impress upon others that Islamists are the ‘true' representatives of a diverse community of 120 million individuals. Thanks to predictable reactions, Islamists succeeded in communicating this sense of their (dubious) authority. Stereotypes about Muslims were reinforced, and hence Islamists did another favour to all who actually hate Muslims.
While Islamists, like anyone else, have the right to protest and demand to be heard, no one has the right to prevent the free movement of any individual who is not convicted of a crime in that state's courts. This is something that ‘minority' leaders — and Indian Islamists belong to the category — cannot afford to forget. Moreover, today it is vital to try and match the free mobility of First World capital with the (very restricted) mobility of Third World workers. Any ‘leader' who fails to see this is not worthy of a following in any Third World country. Let the Rushdies of the world move freely, so that we can demand that our youth may enter other national spaces too in search of jobs and better lives. This is far more important than any book.
Similarly, while I understand why some writers needed to protest against the ban on The Satanic Verses, I fail to see the political use of such a gesture in the national context. Such expansive gestures by our class, even when necessary, usually result in knocking a glass off some tray held by a poor waiter, who then has to go down on his knees to mop up. Serious writers feel that bans on books are never justified, and hence this ban is an imposition. But religious Muslims, on whose shoulders Islamists dump their agenda, might consider the lack of such a ban as an imposition too — and they seldom read novels. Moreover, it is not as if the book is not in print or difficult to get. One part of me fails to understand the point of so much fuss once again over a highly visible book in a nation where many other books and films are banned to appease various pressure groups.
Whatever happens, in a country like India, a large group will consider the ban or the lifting of the ban on The Satanic Verses as the bullying tactics of another large group. Surely, there is need for much more dialogue between the groups before such matters can be resolved — and given the huge class and educational differences involved, there is need for the creation of a language in which this dialogue can be held.
What happened at Jaipur once again retarded the development of such a language. A dialogue not necessarily with Islamists, who were not willing to listen, but with those they claimed to be speaking for. The bourgeois hegemonies that structure First World states are not in place in post-colonial countries like India; we need to consolidate a language which does not fully exist. This lack is obviously exploited by extremists of all sorts. But it is also partly the failure of our ‘liberal' classes, for we have been particularly parsimonious with our economic and cultural capital.
In that context, however, Hari Kunzru had a point when he told Islamists that it is important to defend other people's freedom of speech so that one is not denied one's own space to speak. It is not just a condition of democracy but of basic civility to stand up for the rights of those one disagrees with.
But before writers fall into the trap of blaming the compromises of Indian politicians and running down a country that has survived despite great differences and pressures, let us ask ourselves: How many of us refuse to compromise in our own writings in a world where the neo-liberal religion of ‘book sales' rampages as blatantly as religious fundamentalisms?
Let's stop all the shouting now — and also drop the cases against those writers who protested.