Salman Rushdie is one of the world's great novelists. It is a disgrace that an unlawful fatwa, issued by the seminary Darul Uloom Deoband, has created a haze of uncertainty over his participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Instead of dismissing the fatwa with the contempt it deserves and declaring that adequate security would be provided to Mr. Rushdie and for the safe conduct of the festival, the central and Rajasthan governments have adopted an attitude that is opaque and obfuscatory. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has conceded that Mr. Rushdie, who has a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card that permits visa-free travel, cannot be prevented from coming to the State's capital. But he has also said that his government, which did not want a law and order problem, had informed the Centre of the “prevailing sentiments” about the writer's visit. Reports that the State government had prevailed on the JLF to cancel the invitation to Mr. Rushdie were followed by his scheduled events being taken off its website. However, the organisers have announced that they stood by their invitation.
Following the Deobandi fatwa, an odd bag of politicians, clerics, and fundamentalist organisations — one of which offered Rs.1 lakh to anyone who hurled a shoe at him — has attempted to revive the discredited old issue of injuring Muslim sentiments. The proximity of these orchestrated protests to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections gives the game away. The Booker Prize-winning novelist has made several visits to India following Ayatollah Khomeni's infamous fatwa of February 14, 1989 and the cowardly proscription of his novel The Satanic Verses in India; significantly, his visit to the inaugural edition of the JLF in 2007 passed without a hint of trouble. As the Supreme Court of India has underlined in a series of verdicts, including the landmark Ore Oru Gramathile judgment, it is absolutely vital that public authorities protect the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression in the face of intolerance and not resort to bans in the name of upholding law and order. Deoband may be one of Asia's largest seminaries but it has a record of staking out reactionary positions on a variety of issues. The Congress-led governments at the Centre and in Rajasthan should have sent a clear and strong signal that they would not allow Mr. Rushdie's visit to be sabotaged by those who feigned anger and hurt with an eye to a supposedly communal vote bank. It is an insult to the intelligence and good sense of India's 160 million-strong Muslim community to make out that it wants a prodigiously gifted writer, born in a Muslim family, to be treated as persona non grata in the land of his birth.