Standing up for Rushdie is about standing up for every book, painting and film attacked or censored.

It was on the evening of the 16th of January that I heard Salman Rushdie had cancelled his visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival. ‘Rushdie's not coming. Death threat from Bombay mafia. He says he can't risk the festival and it would be unfair to his family.' For a moment, I was a bit bemused.

Rushdie has come to India several times in the last decade, usually without incident. He has passed through India with annoying bits of glitter attached to his invisible cape, each visit producing a display of irritating smugness, not so much from him as from people who've got to hang out with him, got to interview him, got to share the intellectual equivalent of a swimming-pool with the intellectual equivalent of an ageing but still charismatic film star. Many would insist that the decline of Rushdie as a writer of fiction began in the middle of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (TSV), or definitely after his fifth work of fiction, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and has continued since. Others, such as myself, would suggest that no matter how good or bad his recent novels, he remains one of the most brilliantly engaging writers of non-fiction that this country (with a little help from Britain) has produced.

But all this has only to do with the tiny number of people in this country who read serious fiction and non-fiction written in English. Clearly, embedded in Rushdie's public persona is a certain un-amputable button marked ‘TSV' that people who have nothing to do with books or literature like to press. Clearly that button still sets off some kind of useful toppling of dominoes in certain segments outside the book-reading world.

In 1989

As I heard the news of this latest chain reaction, a couple of memories returned from London in May 1989, when Rushdie had just gone into hiding because of Ayatollah's Khomeini's death sentence against him. The person I was visiting was one of a few people in regular contact with Rushdie at the time. The phone would ring sometimes when my host was not home and the answering machine would click on. I would hear a voice familiar from recent TV interviews and radio readings, ‘Hi, how are things?' Rushdie's voice was always polite, but there was a strange isolation in the tone, wanting to talk, longing for contact, hoping to meet — but, always, only if his security allowed it. He would never leave his name, always beginning or ending with an ‘it's me,' or ‘you know who this is.' I remember feeling anger at the time.

The other memory from that time is of a group of women activists who had gone to picket the mass protest against The Satanic Verses at the Houses of Parliament in London. They recounted to me their experience of being charged by angry Muslim ‘boys' from one side, even as white, racist skinhead ‘lads' (themselves there to ‘protest' against the march), came at them from the other. Later, I watched the incident on video, the surge, and then the jostling, pushing and cursing from brown men and white, the epithets hurled in London and North England accents at the protesting women. These friends recounted the fear they felt (though they didn't show it) and I remember the anger I felt then.

If 1989 was the momentous year when the Berlin Wall fell, it was also the year the Fatwa Wall was erected across the world. I have subsequent memories of writers, artists, film-makers being pushed into narrower and narrower pens by people who had no interest in literature, art or cinema other than to use these as excuses to expand their own illiterate, illiberal, poisonous power under the guise of identity politics.

Competing ‘identity' brands

In India, within a couple of years of Khomeini's fatwa, competing ‘identity' brands began to vie to out-do each other in their assaults on ideas and laws they jointly hated: democracy, free speech (i.e. anything that might offend an established party or power), equal rights for women, freedom to choose one's own sexuality, freedom to individually interpret one's religion.

It may be common knowledge for older generations but it's worth repeating for people born, say, after 1982, those who were no older than six or seven in '89: India's blocking of The Satanic Verses led directly to Khomeini's fatwa. Khomeini's murder sentence on Salman Rushdie was like the meltdown of a spiritual and moral reactor and the toxicity spread in several directions, feeding into and powering similar poisons that were spreading. The model of a swaggering, bullying ‘identity' that could claim ‘hurt' in order to kill, rape and burn with impunity, went viral. The demand for the destruction of the Babri Masjid was begun in earnest in 1990, the goal achieved in 1992, the justification being ‘Hindu' identity. The Taliban coalesced over those same years, soon after establishing their ‘identity' over Afghanistan. Certain mosques in Britain, Europe, the Maghreb and elsewhere became emboldened to propagate deeply reactionary and violent versions of Islam, and some of the people who were indoctrinated at these mosques (and then trained in Afghanistan) eventually showed the world their identity by flying planes into the WTC on 9/11.

In the meantime, attacks on M.F. Husain began in India, as did attacks on anything the Shiv Sena or the Bajrang Dal and the VHP deemed as ‘hurting' ‘Hindu' ‘sentiments'. The massacre and burning out of Gujarati Muslims in 2002 was made possible by exactly the same politics that kept up its assault on the ‘enemies of Islam', except the brand label in Ahmedabad read ‘enemies of Sanatan Dharma'. Every time someone, politician or practitioner of art, has yielded an inch to the identity merchants, the latter have taken a mile. Relentlessly, competitively, often cynically, always without any mercy or pity.

23 years after

Now here we were, in 2012, twenty-three years after The Satanic Verses was blocked from import. Here we were, standing by, as Rushdie himself was being blocked from attending a festival because of that blocked book. Even though he has come to India many times since the ‘ban', even though he had not tried to revive the book on any of his visits. Here we were, watching the governments in Delhi and Jaipur, greedy for a few votes and fearful of losing them, yet again stepping back from confronting the identity merchants. Enough was enough. Outrage takes on a cold shape across two decades.

We decided to act

On the 16th of January, when we heard about Rushdie's withdrawal, some of us attending the Jaipur Literature Festival decided we would act to normalise the abnormality of this suspended book and this suspended man. Others, it transpired, had similar ideas, but we only found that out later.

For us in Delhi on that day, it was about Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, for sure, but it was far more about every Indian book, painting and film that has been attacked or censored on fake religious grounds, about every Indian artist who has had to take down his work, hide, or go into exile, it was about the memory of M.F. Husain and A.K. Ramanujan, the absence of Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry, and the future of all our work. We decided that whatever we would do, it would be peaceful, something that no reasonable person could see as a provocation, and we decided we would continue doing this even after the festival at Jaipur.

We knew we were in it for the long haul, but hopefully for a period shorter than 23 years. If you're forced to let them simmer for over two decades, anger and outrage turn into something that feel a lot like calm stamina, a determination to keep the freedom of expression alive no matter what the odds.

(Ruchir Joshi is a film-maker and writer. He is the author of a novel, The Last Jet Engine Laugh and the recent Poriborton, a diary of the West Bengal elections)

More In: Comment | Opinion