Worrying victory for India's extremes

  • 24 January 2012
  • From the section India
  • comments
Jaipur literature festival Image copyright AP
Image caption Broken link: The Salman Rushdie video address did not take place

The Sir Salman Rushdie pull-out - first physical, and then virtual - from the Jaipur literature festival must come as a huge embarrassment for India, a nation that openly talks about its aspirations of becoming a superpower.

Once again, the so-called "mighty" Indian state has succumbed to threats of violence from fringe, trouble-making religious groups. Once again, it has been proved that it only requires the threat of violence to hold India to ransom.

Once again, politicians - from right to left of centre to communists - remained speechless bystanders, showing how a politics of compromise and cowardice has numbed India. Once again, worryingly, it shows how Indians are becoming inured to frequent assaults on free speech and an ineffectual state. Outside the bustling literary salon of the Jaipur festival and some spirited coverage in the media, there was no national outrage. The mob rules, so why risk your life taking it on? Sir Salman's failure to speak at the festival, many would argue, is India's collective failure.

"This has always been a contested country. This kind of bigotry will carry on," said author and Tehelka magazine editor, Tarun Tejpal, in a conversation at the festival. Mr Tejpal is correct. It is the duty of the state - and Indians - to stand up and contest this kind of bigotry.

Everybody is complicit. The media gives the oxygen of undue publicity to rabble-rousers and largely ignores the moderates - especially among Muslims - during such conflicts and reinforces cosy and dangerous stereotypes. Writers and painters seem to pick up the gauntlet only when pushed to the wall or when under a spotlight (why did a petition by India's writers to the government to lift the ban on The Satanic Verses come 23 years after the book was banned?). Pusillanimous political parties succumb to the smallest threats of violence.

Of course, Sir Salman's pull-out is not a defeat for every Indian. The troublemakers who use religion or caste to bring the state to its knees must be rejoicing. Many will think that all of this can only lead to India becoming an iniquitous, philistine and schizoid democracy.