In a rather unbecoming finale of an international event propounding freedom of expression and universal brotherhood, the five-day Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) abandoned the much-talked about videoconference hosting eminent author Salman Rushdie here on Tuesday.
It appeared that after much vacillation, the government, the organisers and the owner of the premises decided to call off the event, initially scheduled for 3.45 p.m.. on the lawns of the Diggi Palace.
“We have been bullied. We have to stop our fight for freedom of expression. This is a decision we cannot support. We have been informed by the police of large crowds gathering in several parts of the city, in parks… We have been asked to stop [it],” said Sanjoy Roy, organiser, his voice choked with emotion. “All of us feel hurt and disgraced…”
“For them, the very image of Salman on the screen was an issue. Yet, we were told by the authorities that if we wanted to go ahead with the programme they would continue to give protection,” Mr. Roy said. “We once again ask the media to continue this debate…” Mr. Roy could not complete his words as emotions got over him.
There was a hush of silence in the crowd — which also had a sprinkling of youth in skullcaps — which stood without dissipating. Some of them clapped not exactly knowing what they were clapping for while others looked nervous. With this, even the hope of glimpsing Mr. Rushdie on video screen was over. Perhaps, it all looked more like a video game. The efforts to bring Mr. Rushdie to the JLF 2012, which continued despite a Deoband seminary fatwa and the opposition of certain Muslim groups, ended with a whimper.
“I am sad that a great show like this ended in this manner. We cannot be held to ransom like this. It is time that we decided things in a more democratic manner,” noted author Kunal Basu said.
Rampratap Singh Diggi, owner of the palace, was pushed forward to make the announcement even as the organisers, Mr. Roy and Namita Gokhale, stood beside him. “I have taken a decision not to allow the video link to take place on the advice of the Rajasthan police. There are lots of people who are averse to this video link. They are threatening violence. This is unfortunate,” Mr. Diggi, patron of the festival since its inception, said as a huge audience listened listlessly. “This is to safeguard you, my family, my children …”
Since afternoon there were signs of protesters sneaking into the premises — though for an event in which passes are issued and there is strict vigil. It is not known how so many could be allowed on such a day. There were some dramatic moments in the afternoon as over two dozen men, in white skullcaps, said to be members of the Milli Council, went to the front portion of the Diggi mansion (the Durbar Hall) and offered “namaz” (prayers). This was followed by a group of persons led by Paikar Farooq positioning themselves on one side of the lawns where the Rushdie videoconferencing was scheduled.
Later, in a statement, the organisers said they felt disgraced. “After three weeks of struggle, we had to give in to those who wish to suppress free speech. We wish to reiterate our resolve to stand by the right to expression and freedom of speech as guaranteed by the Constitution of this country. We also stand by the right to dissent as long as this is within the law,” it said.
The organisers said police fully cooperated with them. “While the police stood firm in their resolve to protect each person at the venue, they did convey the strong possibility of escalating violence in the venue and that guests may be harmed and they would need to use some degree of force should the situation demand,” they said.