Salman Rushdie pull out: A stain on India?

File picture taken on 19 February 1999 Indian Muslims burn an effigy of Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie. Mr Rushdie sparked anger in the Muslim world with his book The Satanic Verses

Two years ago, Salman Rushdie said he was worried about a rising "culture of complaint" in India.

Speaking at a media conclave in Delhi, he referred to the case of the late artist MF Husain. Bigots had vandalised the painter's works, threatened him and literally drove him out of India. He lived in exile in Qatar and died in London last year.

"This is the proud face of a philistine India," the author had said.

"There is nothing wrong in not liking his art. You can easily opt out. A painting is a finite space of art. If it offends, don't enter that space. The best way to avoid getting offended is to shut a book… The worst thing is that artists are soft targets… We don't have armies protecting us."

Salman Rushdie, who lived in hiding under police protection for many years after the fatwa issued in 1989 against him by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, may have been prescient.

He has now pulled out from the lJaipur Literary Festival, Asia's largest, after intelligence sources informed him that paid assassins might try to kill him. Sensibly, he decided to stay at home.

Author Hari Kunzru tweeted that his absence from the festival is "a stain on India's international reputation".

To be sure, this time the threats to Salman Rushdie by Muslim groups may have arisen from petty political compulsions.

But none of India's main political parties, including the ruling Congress party, spoke out against clerics and fringe groups. Critics say they fear offending Muslim voters that they are all trying to woo in crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh next month.

The failure of the state to secure Salman Rushdie's protection, many believe, is a shameful indictment of India's politicians and their opportunistic politics of least resistance.

It also raises some fundamental questions: Is an increasingly prosperous India becoming more intolerant? Or have religious groups and politicians, in pandering to religions and identities, failed to move with the times? I fear that the answers to both are partly in the affirmative.

India is a grimy example of how bad politics hurts freedom of speech. Whether Salman Rushdie's staying away from Jaipur will fetch Muslim votes for parties is not clear. But what is clear that it sets a dreadful precedent for its artists who are deemed by religious groups to be producing "blasphemous" material.

Freedom of speech, most democrats believe, is non-negotiable and should come without caveats and not be held hostage to fringe groups or the whimsies of politicians.

If India fails to protect this essential freedom, they say, it has no business to call itself a thriving democracy. As analyst Salil Tripathi says: "Writers should not need armies to protect them in a free society. That Rushdie might need protection in India reflects poorly - not on him, but on India."

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Sane, civilized Muslims must come out against such practice of threat & culture of fatwa, in India & elsewhere. Reform of Islam must come from within. The responsibility to joining the main stream society also belongs to minorities as well, like Muslims in India. They must not continue Arabic traditions & culture of violent Islam if they like peaceful co-existence with other religions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Intellect of bunch of politicians finds thier vote bank more important instead of respecting true art work and caring about india's image in world.
    Whole issue is a definite stain on india.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I would appreciated if Islamic organizations, who are opposing Rushdie's India visit, invite him & engage in a open, logical, informed debate over both Islam & his book. It is another black day for Indian democracy and failure of Indian Govt. that such fundamentalist organizations routinely undertake threat and fatwa tactics and allowed to operate with impunity in a secular democracy in India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It is surprising that Mr, Rushdie has failed to show his courage by standing to his own words.Is life is so valuable than his own convictions?Does he know for upholding their ideas so many persons sacrifice their lives ?He must come to India despite any kind of opposition and threats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Rushdie's case does highlight problems of violent activitist groups (in this case, Islamist) in any democracy. But don't bash India too much - look how Rushdie fared in England, which he eventually left to breathe freer air in New York. To me, it appears that the biggest stain is on the Islamist fanatics who hate Rushdie (and others who are different), and on their apologists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Yes, it is a stain on Indian Democracy.
    Rushdie was not banned, but he refused to go because he feared assassination; this is not a little fear, not in a country where you have Hindutva, Muslim extremists, and God knows what else.
    Rushdie could face an extremist anywhere, but the potential is much higher in India.
    (Has the Mumbai Case even been brought to final resolution?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @ sukhvinder.
    Are you sure about what are you saying!
    Check your facts brother.
    You think india bothers only for hindus, disregarding the rushdie issue. This whole matter has came up because of muslim clerics and politicians. Where are 'hindus', for whom your indian govt. Is claimed to be crying!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I wonder how many of these people who are so offended by his works have actually read them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Not only a stain on India. It is symptomatic of the attempts by religious bigots around the world to ensure that only their incredible fables are heard. It applies to all so called "revealed" religions, let's hear about some stoning to death for preventing freedom of expression, burning or banning literature. Seems to work for some.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The So-Called India Democracy always speaks about Hindus and never even opened its mouth about Sikhs,Christians or Muslims. When "Hindus Holy Book" was banned in Russia Indian Foreign minister strated crying, when Turban was banned in many European countries not a Single Indian Govt Official Spoke against it, now Rushdie who insulted Muslims is banned from India and Many are very uncomfortable..

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    To be fair the UKs pandering minority views via PC politics has endangered freedom of expression here as well. Mr Rushdie would face attack in many muslim areas in the UK. We didn't print the Mohammed cartoons for fear of attacks. A play about Sikh temples was closed in 2004 after violent mobs tried to storm the theatre and female playright was threatened with abduction & murder. Not so different!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    For such stains Indian Establishment, media included, is least worried, particularly when innate morality of Indian children is allowed to be crippled for decades.

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    It is indeed a stain on India--that it still follows the stupid (and debunked by Sultan Shahin) concept of "vote bank politics"!


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