Civil Liberties

Salman in No Rush to Die….


…decided to skip the Jaipur Literary Festival, the most prestigious confab of its kind in the region, after some churlish Muslim clerics protested his visit and demanded that the Indian government revoke his visa. Rushdie, who has attended the event many times in the past without any fuss, is a bona fide Person of Indian origin and doesn't need a visa, making it difficult for India's craven, vote-grubbing government to oblige. But Rushdie himself bowed out after intelligence authorities informed him that the kingpin of the Mumbai underground -- and it's an open secret that they were referring to Dawood Ibrahim, a Muslim -- had dispatched two paid assassins to "eliminate" him. In light of this, Rushdie said in a written statement, "it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers."

But Rushdie's fellow writers Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi refused to be cowed and, against the wishes of the festival's organizers, took turns reading passages from the Satanic Verses, in defiance of a two-decade-old ban.

Rushdie arguably did the sensible thing in cancelling his visit, especially given all that he endured during the fatwa years when he was forced into exile. But I can't help wishing he had been a bit more foolish and shown up -- if for no other reason than to put the Indian government, the festival's organizers and other authorities on the spot, forcing them to protect him and his free speech rights or lose face internationally. His presence might well have derailed the festival. But an event that depends on free speech rights needs to stand up for these rights from time to time. Instead, Rushdie's decision gave all these invertebrates a face-saving way out.

Incidentally, the only Indian political party that has criticized the pusillanimity demonstrated by all levels of government -- national, state and local -- and has firmly defended Rushdie's rights, is the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

Thanks to Salil Tripathi for his helpful Facebook feeds on the issue.