The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the Congress' response to the Deoband seminary's appeal that a visa be not granted to the controversial prize-winning writer Salman Rushdie, who has been invited to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival starting this weekend is, not surprisingly, ambivalent.
The Central government has let it be known that since the Mumbai-born Mr. Rushdie holds a PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, he does not require a visa: it will, therefore, not “intervene in the matter,” but leave it to Mr. Rushdie and the organisers of the festival to decide on what course of action to pursue.
But Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot's meeting on Tuesday with Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram on the issue puts the matter squarely in the public domain. Mr. Gehlot, sources said, informed Mr. Chidambaram that in view of the Deoband fatwa, Mr. Rushdie's visit to Jaipur could lead to a security problem in his State as some local people “do not want” him to come and had made representations to the State government about their feelings.
Meanwhile, official sources in Jaipur told The Hindu that if Mr. Rushdie did attend the Literary Festival, the security arrangements would have to be “on a larger scale” as he “would have to be protected”. These sources added that “unfortunately none of the saner elements here are willing to oppose” the Deoband demand.
The Congress, on its part, sought to distance itself from the controversy: to a question on Mr. Gehlot's meeting with Mr. Chidambaram, party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi — dodging a response on what the party's position is — said: “Different States and different State units of the Congress can have different views. Ultimately, it will be the decision of the Centre, based on the inputs it receives.”
Clearly, the UPA government does not want to look weak-kneed before the Deoband hardliners, while the Congress is conscious that the controversy, if not buried quickly, could adversely affect the party's Muslim vote in the impending Assembly elections, especially in the key State of Uttar Pradesh.
Support for diktat
As things stand, U.P.'s Muslim political leaders, cutting across political lines, have, by and large, supported the Deoband diktat.
Meanwhile, it is learnt that Mr. Rushdie will not be present on the opening day of the festival on January 20 “due to a change in his schedule.” Whether he will make it on the second and third days, when he is scheduled to speak, is not yet known. The organisers have, however, issued a statement reiterating that their invitation to Mr. Rushdie stands, but acknowledged that the writer would not be in India on January 20.
Twenty-three years after the Rajiv Gandhi government banned The Satanic Verses, following objections to its allegedly “blasphemous content,” the Congress once again has to confront how to react to opposition from a section of the Muslim community to Mr. Rushdie and the book that forced him into hiding for many years after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death threat against him in 1989.