By Srijana Mitra Das
Jan 27, 2012,
The banning of Salman Rushdie from appearing even via satellite link at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) showcases two ideas of India. The first is embodied by the JLF. Stepping away from India's fascination with hierarchies, the fest avoids armed bodyguards, sleek millionaires and imperious politicians flinging namaskars into crowds.
Instead, it throws itself open to everyone; this includes readers, schoolchildren, writers, homemakers, domestic help, socialites and swamis, with the occasional politico. Everyone joins its carnival-like atmosphere, drinking tea on the venue's lawns, queuing for the same restrooms, hearing the finest words in the world.
Registering 1.22 lakh visitors in 2012, the JLF couldn't have become the success it has without this idea of India endorsed by its core audience - liberal Indians. The term 'liberal' doesn't mean a manicured handful of intellectuals discussing the Russian or Tamil Stalin at clubs and TV studios. It denotes thousands of people from diverse classes and languages, spread over distant cities and towns - often obtaining books from fading libraries and railway carts, debating poets in the low-voltage light of old homes, opposing the unjust hierarchies of Indian life. It is these liberals' idea of an equal and intellectual India that encouraged the JLF's organisers to invite Rushdie to discuss English becoming the deliciously tangy chutney all of us make it.
But events thereafter highlight another idea of India rising like bile - cynical, brutal and coarse, fuelled by the commingling of politics with vociferous bullies of any community. Within this idea, hierarchy must be privileged. Such hierarchy could be social, economic or sexual, or based on physica-lity where the threat of bodily violence overwhelms the most beautiful ideas. To pump muscle into threat, an underemployed male underclass is pointed at those it wrongly resents.
Political groups use this tactic repeatedly to strengthen the status quo and prevent any change - economic, gendered, and intellectual - from shaking their place in the established hierarchy. The Sri Ram Sene used this underclass to attack women at Bangalore pubs. Congress elements used this underclass to protest Joseph Lelyveld's biography of Gandhi and guard our most-garlanded, least-heard saint. And recently, political interests fuelled an angry underclass, directing it to threaten a festival of the most democratic ideas. These events make it imperative for Indian liberals to re-evaluate their position on all threats and those who make them.
Traditionally, the Indian liberal has opposed obvious hierarchies - class, caste, gender - challenging even the superiority writ into the very act of banning where a patronising political class considers itself best-equipped to decide what its citizenry may read, see or write. But there is one glaring omission in the Indian liberal's opposition - opposing a violent underclass because it hails from an otherwise disadvantaged section of society. To illustrate - the darkness from the Rushdie controversy stretches back into the 1980s when, before banning The Satanic Verses, Rajiv Gandhi's government overturned a legal ruling favouring a divorced Muslim woman. Minority appeasement, screamed the Hindu right as Shah Bano lost her maintenance before far more vociferous Muslim men. Repulsed by Hindutva's aggression and tongue-tied before those it traditionally defended, the Indian liberal stepped back - a huge error.
In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen points out the only people 'appeased' by the Shah Bano ruling were Muslim men, making the Muslim woman a thoroughly vulnerable being. Yet, frightened for minorities already savaged in Bhagalpur and other places, the Indian liberal said and did little for Shah Bano. Today, that hesitation has returned to mock the blank screen where Rushdie's image could have played.
Had the Indian liberal used logic and not courtesy then, arguing for justice, opposing any threats of violence from fringe elements whether Hindu or Muslim, perhaps those fringes would not have grown to be the problem they are today. Perhaps we could have seen a JLF where anti-Rushdie groups shouted slogans and waved placards - their democratic right - but feared threatening violence in place of severe censure. Perhaps we would have had a situation where, realising targeting artists wasn't going to win elections; politicians - both Hindu and Muslim - would have ensured the Muslim community got its fair share of jobs and education. Perhaps we might have had a JLF where Rushdie spoke and those who abhorred him turned up their noses - but didn't even think of raising their fists. Perhaps a timely trim in liberal tolerance might have led to a less violent nation.
Yet, events actually show the first idea of India is gaining ground. The strong support, particularly from younger people, for Rushdie's right to speak, the impromptu debate that occurred inviting an anti-Rushdie representative to explain opposition, media and internet criticism, all show the idea of India loved by liberal Indians is losing its early hesitation. As more Indians transcend boundaries, challenge ridiculous bans and show the finger to anyone who threatens violence, we will have more festivals of literature, ideas and art where liberal and illiberal will use only their words - beautiful, polished, haunting or taunting - to make points or refute them.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi