The celebrated writer was not invited to a literary festival in India in what is seen as a sop to Muslim pressure groups.
Yet, Rushdie – who won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 for his second novel, “Midnight’s Children” – has been asked (or told) to stay away from the Jaipur Literary Festival, to run from Jan 20 to 24.
A nervous Rajasthan government (whose capital city is Jaipur) asked the festival organisers to persuade the Kashmiri-born British author to stay away in the face of threats by Muslim groups.
Ever since Rushdie wrote “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, he has been under the surveillance of radical Islamic organisations that first began with a “fatwa” against him, ordered in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s then supreme ruler.
What is shocking is that while the British government spent hundreds of thousands of pounds for the writer’s safety in those long years when he was kept hidden from possible assassins on the prowl in the UK, India feels that it cannot protect the man, born in its own country, for a mere five days.
Is this cowardice or just appeasement of a community by the Congress government in Rajasthan and the Congress-led coalition in New Delhi in the crucial year of several elections, most significantly in Uttar Pradesh with its make-or-mar power?
I would think that the Congress has once again opened itself – and quite widely at that – to criticism of it being a party indulging in mollification. Equally worse could be the tag of India being a soft state easily frightened by pressure tactics.
It does seem such a shame that the nation cannot take care of Rushdie, who does not even need a visa to enter, since he is categorised as a Person of Indian Origin.
Rushdie is not alone in being vilified. The celebrated painter, MF Husain, was hounded out of India in 2006, because he chose to exercise his artistic freedom.
In Husain’s case, it was Hindu fundamentalists who were angered by his depiction of gods and goddesses.
Sadly, Husain – who missed India terribly (including the smells, the sights and the sounds of Mumbai where he lived most of his life) and always yearned to return home, died last year in London without stepping into his country.
It has been often written and debated, but this needs to be said all over again: art and politics must be kept separate. Otherwise, India could cease to be any different from China or Iran, where the state virtually polices your thought.
Over the years, such restrictive tendencies have been noticed in many spheres of life in India: political goons often attack newspapers if they dare carry “offensive” write-up about their leaders. Lovers are harassed by cops, and dress code for girls are sometimes imposed by colleges.
Finally, in an India which has not done much to erase the memory of either the Gujarat riots (in which thousands of Muslims were butchered) or the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, the Husain and Rushdie cases will only reinforce the belief among its liberal citizens (and the enlightened world) that the country can keep away eminent artists and writers from its shores in order to score brownie points or further narrow political agendas.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at[email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.