Eminent author Salman Rushdie was on Sunday reported as likening the “secular” Congress to its Hindu nationalist opponents in the way it tended to exploit religion for political ends.
He believed the way the government agencies conspired with Muslim fanatics to keep him out of the Jaipur Literary Festival — preventing him from even addressing it through a video-link — showed the extent to which the party was prepared to sacrifice its own professed principles and appease communal groups in the hope of garnering votes.
In its attempt to “showcase” itself as the “caretaker of Muslim interests” ahead of the crucial Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress government of Rajasthan went to the extent of manufacturing a “massive threat perception” to deter him from attending the festival, Mr. Rushdie was quoted as saying in a conversation with The Observer writer and free speech campaigner Nick Cohen who has just published a book, You Can't Read This Book, on the chilling effect of censorship on creative freedom.
Citing the “Rushdie case” as “the best evidence” of the threat to free speech from religious extremists, Mr. Cohen writes that as a result of the way Mr. Rushdie was hounded after the publication of The Satanic Verses, “No young artist of Rushdie's range and gifts would dare write a modern version of The Satanic Verses today, and if he or she did, no editor would dare publish it.”
Mr. Rushdie thought that “the cowardice resides almost exclusively in the offices of publishers, broadcasters and newspaper editors” and that writers should be braver in taking on “the clerical-political alliance” that targeted him.
His remarks came as William Dalrymple, co-director of the Jaipur festival, disclosed that the decision to scrap Rushdie's video-link address in the face of threat of violence was taken not by festival's organisers but by Ram Pratap Singh of Diggi Palace, the owner of the venue, as he did not want bloodshed on his property.
“He said he was unable to take the responsibility for a lathicharge and possible deaths in a venue full of children and old people, and forbade the link to take place on his property,” Mr. Dalrymple wrote in The Guardian recalling how until the very last minute the organisers were hoping that they would be able to have “at least a virtual Rushdie close the festival.”
As the police breathed down their neck warning the organisers of the possibility of violence if the link went ahead, “we had five minutes to make an unenviable choice: cause a riot or uphold a vital principle.”
“In the event, we never got to make that decision. The owner of festival venue, Ram Pratap Singh of Diggi Palace, stepped in, and on the advice of the police commissioner, took the decision for us.”