William Dalrymple tells us what last Tuesday afternoon in Jaipur was like.
It was the last afternoon of the Jaipur Literature Festival, of which I am co-director, and more than 10,000 people were milling around the grounds of Diggi Palace, the festival venue, eagerly waiting to hear Salman Rushdie speak by video link from London. For three weeks we had waited anxiously for this moment, ever since Maulana Abdul Qasim Nomani of the Deoband madrasa had called for the Indian Muslim community to oppose Rushdie’s visit to our festival…
Then at about one o’clock a large number of Muslim activists appeared in the property and gravitated to the back of the lawns where a huge crowd had gathered to hear the videolink. Some of them went into the central courtyard of the palace to make their namaz (pray), and according to some reports, the maulana in charge told his followers that if anyone was killed that day they would die a martyr. Then they sought out our producer, Sanjoy Roy, and told him that they were prepared to use any amount of violence in order to stop Rushdie’s voice being heard. Others talked to the press: one told a reporter from the Times of India that “rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie”, while the Muslim Manch representative Abdul Salim Sankhla was quoted as saying: “We will not allow Rushdie to speak here in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks.” While all this was happening, some of the other activists were turfing school children out of their seats and intimidating festival guests.
Some “activists.” Bullies, theocrats, goons – censors, haters of literature, enforcers for god – fascists.
The commitment of Indian politicians to maintaining artistic and intellectual freedom seemed to be becoming ever weaker. In the past few months, Joseph Lelyveld’s distinguished book on Gandhi had been banned in the state of Gujerat, AK Ramanujan’s great study of the Ramayana had been removed from the syllabus of Delhi university, and the country’s most revered modern artist, MF Husain, had died in exile after Hindu fundamentalists had hounded him out of the country with a rash of lawsuits and attacks on him and his work. In almost all cases, the politicians had encouraged the protesters rather than protecting the writers and artists, using draconian colonial legislation intended to stop religious riots to silence the creative voice.
In the event, we never got to make that decision. The owner of our festival venue, Ram Pratab Singh of Diggi Palace, stepped in and, on the advice of the police commissioner, took the decision for us. He said he was unable to take responsibility for a lathi charge and possible deaths in a venue full of children and old people, and forbade the link to take place on his property. He stood on stage and announced his decision. Then it was the turn of Sanjoy to speak for us. “We have been bullied and pushed to the wall,” he said, choking up. “All of us feel hurt, disgusted and ashamed.” As Sanjoy broke down on stage, the audience clapped loudly and supportively. Minutes later I got an email from Rushdie on my BlackBerry: “Yes, an ugly day, but please don’t reproach yourself. You all worked so hard. Thank you.”
But then Barkha Dutt interviewed Rushdie and that was seen on tv by millions a few hours later.
Rushdie was as eloquent and defiant as I have ever heard him: “I will come to India many times,” he said, “and I will not allow these religious gangsters and their cronies in government to stop me … My overwhelming feeling is disappointment on behalf of India … [where] religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas”, where politicians were “in bed with these groups … for narrow electoral reasons” and the police “unable to secure venues against demonstrators”. In a final flourish he also slammed the extremists whom, he said, “were the real enemies of Islam”. Meanwhile, on stage, we had a rousing panel discussion about freedom of expression, which was beamed live around India. There could have been worse outcomes.
We can only hope that the debate begun in Jaipur continues. Outdated colonial laws need to be repealed, violent fringe groups must be stopped from holding the nation to ransom and we need a movement to stop politicians abusing religious sentiment for political gain. Only when freedom of expression can be taken for granted can India really call itself the democracy it claims so proudly to be.
Quite. Also the UK.