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Rushdie's invitation to Indian literary festival stirs controversy

January 17, 2012 | 11:45 am

REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- The organizers of a literary festival in the Indian city of Jaipur wanted a bit of buzz and controversy when they invited author Salman Rushdie to be their keynote speaker. They may have gotten more than they bargained for.

With a few days to go before the Jaipur Literature Festival kicks off, the top elected official in Rajasthan state where Jaipur is located heaped pressure on organizers Tuesday to revoke the controversial author’s invitation, citing security concerns

Apparently bowing to that and other demands, festival organizers said the Booker prize winner would not attend opening day due to a “change in schedule.” But they declined to say whether Rushdie, who has faced death threats in the past, would appear later in the five-day festival, which starts Friday. “We stand by our invitation for him to come,” a spokesman said.

MORE: Other noted government critics

This is the latest in a string of free-expression cases in India as the country attempts to balance its status as the “world’s largest democracy” against domestic politics, voting blocs and long-standing efforts to avoid offending religious minorities.

Defenders of such limitations say banning books, movies and appearances by authors is essential to ensure national unity. Critics counter that India’s diversity makes it almost impossible to avoid upsetting some group, increasing the risk that political correctness will lead to censorship.

“India needs an effective state that at least enforces its own laws, and the Rushdie affair is just the latest example,” said Gucharan Das, an author and columnist. “It’s ridiculous.”

In recent months, the government has threatened to block Blackberry messages and has issued new regulations aimed at restricting Internet content deemed “blasphemous,” “disparaging” or “hateful.”

Facebook, Google and 19 other websites face criminal charges before India’s High Court on Thursday for hosting “objectionable” material after a private citizen sued. A New Delhi judge said Monday that India might be compelled, like Beijing, to block certain objectionable websites. Google India’s lawyer countered that this nation has a free-speech tradition and is not a “totalitarian regime like China.”

As is frequently the case in India, electoral politics aren’t far below the surface. India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, heads to the polls next month, and the Muslim vote — about 18% of the electorate — is heavily contested. So when Uttar Pradesh’s Islamic Darul Uloom Deoband seminary called on the government to block Rushdie’s entry into the country, the ruling Congress party jumped to attention.

“Rushdie should understand that he would never be accepted by Muslims of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia because he has hurt the sentiments of Muslims,” said Adil Siddqui, a Deoband official. “If he comes and gives a lecture, Muslims will be angry.”

The 150-year-old seminary preaches an orthodox form of Islam that has inspired millions of Muslims, including the Taliban. Rushdie angered many Muslims and received death threats for what they saw as the blasphemous portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses.”

Unfortunately for the government, it hasn’t been quite as easy as burying Rushdie’s visa application in red tape. The British citizen, born in Mumbai, quickly countered on the Twitter social networking service that he doesn’t need a visa. As a “person of Indian origin” he is legally entitled to enter and leave the country at will.

That evidently prompted the government to switch gears and focus on the security concerns. On Tuesday, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot told reporters after a meeting with central government officials that the people of his state “do not want” Rushdie to come. “No state government will want a law and order situation,” he added.

India has long touted its vibrant democracy as a competitive advantage, particularly when compared to rival China. But it’s often had an uneasy relationship with free expression.

One of the country’s most famous artists, Maqbool Fida Husain, was pressured to leave the country in 2006 after a decade-long campaign by Hindu extremists that saw him charged with hurting people’s “sentiments'' for his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. Although he was eventually cleared of all charges, fear of being attacked prompted him to remain in Dubai and London, where he died last year at the age of 95.

India was among the first to ban “The Satanic Verses,” a restriction that remains in place.
The real problem, said some analysts, is that electoral politics tend to make governments spineless.

“The government will be mealy-mouthed,” said Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist with Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies. “When elections pass, they talk like tigers.”


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-- Mark Magnier

Photo: Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie in 2003, whose invitation to attend an Indian literary festival this weekend has stirred controversy. Credit: Renzo Gostoli / Associated Press