The Jaipur Literature Festival, the ever-expanding brainchild of noted India-focused writer and historian William Dalrymple, is in full swing. However, its most notable speaker is notably absent. Salman Rushdie, it seems, has not shaken off the controversy that has dogged him for most of his writing career – and as always, this particular incident is not a result of a wilful attempt on Rushdie's part to stir up trouble. On the contrary, it is a wilful attempt by a third party, the Maulana of Darul Uloom Deoband, to draw attention with spirited (though calculated) outrage.
I wanted to believe, this time as with Rohinton Mistry and all the others, that books and literature being debated in the public sphere in India was a healthy thing. My logic would have been that if the words of an excellent, challenging writer are being discussed by many people in a society, that society is in good shape. It is in a good position to understand the value of language, both on the page and in conversation, as a collective tool for reflection, and then to actively engage in holding up the mirror and talking – not merely thinking – about what one sees.
But Rushdie's words, the thousands upon thousands he has eloquently published in novels, essays, children's books and more, were not what was being debated. In fact, to call the Maulana (or Raj Thackeray's, or Ayatollah Khomeini's) invective 'debate' discredits the word. The agenda was far simpler and more closed than that: if Rushdie appears at Jaipur, trained assassins will shoot him down on behalf of a tiny minority of professionally outraged individuals. There is no debating floor to be won over with skilled argument, only a battleground, and you have two choices: pitch up and fight on the same terms, or appease the aggressor and leave them to occupy the space.
This is more or less what Rushdie has done. His statement of backing down, released Friday, appears to have been made entirely for others: his family, to whom he is a cherished part of their lives, and the rest of the Jaipur crowd, who could be caught in the crossfire. It's hard to argue with that logic. On the other hand, he displays no fear for his own life (and has since openly questioned the threats against it); by now, such threats must be more tiresome than worrying.
But how tiresome, how dispiriting. I wonder how willing Rushdie would be to stand alone on that battleground if there were nobody else's safety to consider; would he stand proudly and be gunned down for free speech? Having proved himself many times over on various debating floors, almost as talented an arguer as his recently departed friend Christopher Hitchens, perhaps Rushdie would rather leave the battleground to those whose language extends little further than violence. While they provoke governments into book-bannings with the threat of bullets, he would continue to provoke, or stimulate, by writing and speaking the truth he sees.
I've always felt Rushdie has quite an ego about him – as Hitchens did, as every great arguer must – but this is not his burden to bear, more an armour against the opposing opinions of others. His burden is as a provocateur of the most essential kind: one who does engage in debate, who will hold a mirror up to society and stick around to hear what people have to say. Unlike the Deoband leader, this makes Rushdie a stimulating and valuable presence in India and the rest of the world, but also unlike the Deoband leader, it puts him and those around him in danger. Worse, it turns them into exiles – Rushdie was persona non grata to the Indian government for a full decade after The Satanic Verses – while the viciously offended remain free to do and say as they please, the threat of violence always present to ensure that freedom.
This, I suspect, is what will frustrate and sadden Rushdie most. That feeling of being in exile again, of being seen as a provocateur rather than a thinker or simply a good writer, of having opened up to the floor and watched language transform into violence in the Prophet's name. Meanwhile, the only real consequence for the bullies is extra publicity and a further extension of the government-allowed limits of outrage.
It isn't as black and white as this, of course – nothing in India is – but there are no shades of grey when it comes to offence being taken, and certainly none in settling an argument with fists or guns. And then black can become white, if the Maulana – who condemned terrorist acts in 2008 – wishes it to. The mess is in losing track of the ground rules of debate, which has, in essence, disappeared across India under a mask of outright condemnation.
It's important to remember at such a time that this mask is worn by a select few who happen to have wide influence, rather than the representation of a state-wide ideological shift. Many Indians are as argumentative as ever, and Rushdie is among them, for he remains very much an Indian. I don't know if or when the tide of outrage will dissipate in India, but I am relieved that many are almost as outraged at the government's inaction in this case as the Maulana is at Rushdie's perceived slights against Islam.
The possibility that will lead to this (or any) government in India taking appropriate action in future declarations of holy battle seems, as written in The Hindu recently, a sadly unlikely proposition.
NB: Since this piece was written, a petition to unban The Satanic Verses in India has been launched by noted writer Nilanjana Roy. You can view it (and sign if you wish) here.
Photo credit: Alexander Baxevanis