Here’s my take on the Rushdie controversy at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which was a very fine event despite being dominated by this affair. I’ve extracted the juicy bit out of my feature in today’s National below.
You might summarise my view thus: If you don’t like your festival being ruined by retards, then go into teaching, not publishing.
Tarun Tejpal got plenty of applause in the debate yesterday evening, saying it was time to “roll up our sleeves” and do something, rather than sit back and allow these attacks on freedom of speech to keep occurring. If he meant anything, I hope he did not mean that we should all sign a petition asking for the ban on the Satanic Verses to be lifted, then have a heated discussion about it in a drawing room somewhere, then consider the job over.
Freedom of speech has emerged (and retreated) throughout history in line with broader processes of political, economic and social development (and regression). The cosmopolitan crowd at the Jaipur Literature Festival may exist in a world where freedom of speech feels like a natural and fundamental right, but clearly they are in a bubble, insulated from the rest of India.
Sanskrit scholar Alex Watson yesterday pointed out that people who feel offended about something are often revealing an underlying insecurity. We should ask ourselves why these Muslim communities feel so insecure that they would allow idiots to lead them into close-minded hatred.
From my National article:
“…it was notable that a far more provocative attack on Islam – and, indeed, all religions – by the high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, failed to incite a single complaint from the frothing fundamentalists outside the gate.
“I look forward to the death of all religions,” he told another overflowing audience on the Front Lawns on Monday evening. “Religion is deadly because it makes people willing to die and kill for it without a shred of evidence to back up their beliefs.”
What kept Dawkins safe from imaginary assassins was that he is not the political threat that Rushdie represents. Several observers have drawn the link between Rushdie’s banishment and next month’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress party is battling for Muslim votes.
But the festival’s success also plays out against the broader picture of 21st century India – providing another highly visible symbol of the yawning divide between the urbane socialites of south Delhi and the 800 million Indians who would never feel at home in the plush environs of the Diggi Palace venue.
That divide was on conspicuous display on Saturday night, as several hundred delegates piled out of the festival into a series of decadent after-parties sponsored by Penguin and Sula wine.
The latter took place within the beautifully crumbling walls of an old Rajasthani haveli, where guests were bemused to spot several local families staring down from the balconies up above. Equally bemused – and unable to sleep – they watched the increasingly drunken revelers falling over to a soundtrack of 1990s dance tunes long into the night.
As one guest, Nick Booker, a foreign university consultant with IndoGenius in Delhi, pointed out: “It was like the 19th century watching the 21st century dance to the 20th century” – an apt metaphor for how the majority of India must view the increasingly alien and westernised gaudiness of the urban elite.
The backlash against Rushdie may have been confined to a narrow band of bigots and their fawning political clients, but it nonetheless reflects that uncomfortable co-mingling in modern India of old and new, privileged and neglected.
There was no small irony in the idea of an anti-intellectual attack on those who have monopolised educational resources in India, and until the government finds ways of including the vast majority in the education system, such controversies will continue to surface.”