It still surprises me how easily it is to stir up controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in India. Rushdie is due to visit the Jaipur Literature Festival next week, and his trip coincides with all-out campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, where one of several holding-state assembly elections would be held over the next several weeks. Competition for the attention of television cameras (and hence, that of voters) is intense, and one Uttar Pradesh politician, Sultan Ahmed, saw an opportunity in denouncing Rushdie simply for being “an author who is known to hurt religious sentiments of Muslims” and has called for the Indian government to refuse him entry. Never mind that Jaipur is in another state altogether, that he has visited India several times in the past without incident or that he does not need a visa, as Rushdie himself announced.
So why is playing the Rushdie card such an effective political ploy? It points to the ruling Congress Party’s abiding weakness in its relationship with India’s large and important Muslim population. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a columnist for the Indian Express newspaper, wrote a devastating critique recently, in which he calls out the Congress Party for its failure to do anything substantive to improve the lot of Muslims or Dalit communities while nevertheless touting itself — for decades — as the champion of minorities and India’s only true defender of secular values: “It perpetuates the idea of minority as a political category, so that it can keep them in its place and use them.” The Congress Party has been able to do this for so long because its only rival as a national party is the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose founding ideology is anathema to most Muslims. But at the state level, the Congress Party has steadily lost ground to a host of other parties, including Ahmed’s, which have effectively mobilized Muslims at the state level by delivering what Congress has failed to: basic services and real political clout.
It’s telling, too, that rather than take a strong position in defense of Rushdie’s freedom of expression or dismiss Ahmed’s critique for what it is — a distraction from far more substantive issues facing Indian Muslims — the Congress Party has chosen silence. Here is Congress Party spokesman Rashid Alvi’s stirring defense of secular values: “The issue concerns the government of India, and it was for it to take a decision on it.” In other words, Alvi is arguing that the Congress Party may be by far the largest party in the coalition government, but on this issue, it seems to have no influence. More precisely, this is an issue in which the Congress Party sees no political benefit. If it comes to Rushdie’s support, it gives credence to the BJP’s absurd claim that Rushdie has come at the invitation of the Congress — an attempt to lump the party with Rushdie and his elite readership. Another Congress Party leader, Salman Khurshid, told the news agency PTI, “Why should Congress stop this [Rushdie trip]? If there is a legal provision to stop someone then it should be put. But whatever step is taken should be taken within legal framework, not outside it.”
The Congress Party’s effective silence gives prominent Muslim clerics — who would usually support the Congress — free rein to raise their own political profiles by exploiting the symbolic issue of an author’s decades-old words that “offend” Muslims. At some point in the near future, I expect to hear another senior Congress Party official doing some earnest hand-wringing over Muslim “sentiments,” and then say that, alas, there’s nothing they can do legally to stop him. (Or perhaps the government is simply too busy cleaning up the Internet.)
It is true that legally, there is nothing the government can do to stop Rushdie from visiting, without a visa. Although he is a British citizen, he has a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card, which gives him the right to travel to India freely. It’s an interesting wrinkle to this latest iteration of the Rushdie-in-India saga. The PIO card was intended as a way for India to cultivate the influential, affluent network of overseas Indians by making it easier for them to visit India and own property. Immigration authorities perhaps never imagined that it would keep the doors open even for those Indians whose views might be unpopular or politically inconvenient. If nothing else, this year’s Rushdie controversy continues to prove the point he was trying to make with The Satanic Verses all along. As he wrote in a letter to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 protesting India’s ban against the book: “Let’s remember that the book isn’t actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.” The book is a furious, vivid argument about whether cities like those two — and countries like India — are strengthened or threatened by the extreme or unorthodox. That argument, clearly, continues.