Rushdie’s Lit Festival No-Show: A Defeat for Free Expression in India

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Jerod Harris / Getty Images

Writer Salman Rushdie speaks at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2011 in Toronto, Canada.

Salman Rushdie cancelled his scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival on Friday with an explanation worthy of one of his own improbable plotlines: “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to eliminate me.”

Would that it were fiction. Rushdie’s presence at the festival — a five-day, open-air bookapalooza on the grounds of an old palace in the western Indian state of Rajasthan — has been uncertain since earlier this month, when a politician campaigning in local elections in another state made a play for Muslim votes with the absurd claim that the rival Congress Party had invited Rushdie to India and ought to cancel his visa to show that it was sensitive to their concerns (Rushdie was invited by festival organizers and doesn’t need a visa). An influential Muslim cleric then said Rushdie had “hurt the sentiments of Muslims all over the world” and called for him to be denied entry. That was enough to rouse the long-dormant controversy over Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and serve an easy election issue that politicians could pander to with either fiery rhetoric or timid silence.

(WATCH: 10 Questions for Salman Rushdie)

The thousands of book-lovers gathered in Jaipur were hoping that Rushdie might make a surprise appearance anyway (he attended in 2007 without incident and minimal security). Instead, Rushdie explained in a statement read out by festival organizers that, “While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence” — information from India’s state law enforcement agencies is notoriously unreliable —“it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances.”

His absence says as much about the sad state of free expression in India as it does about the country’s unresolved tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim majority. “We need to question and debate as to how a person’s individual ideas and notions are being blocked… why do we continue as a nation to succumb to one pressure or the other,” festival organizer Sanjoy Roy said. “This indeed is a huge problem for Indian democracy.”

Somehow, India’s otherwise vibrant democracy seems to founder on the issue of free expression. While it does have a free press, India has also long had laws against “promoting hatred or communal disharmony.” Those limits on free expression are a colonial legacy that gives authorities wide power to ban or penalize anyone thought to have offended Hindus, Muslims or other communities. But they have found a new usefulness in India’s modern politics, in which caste, religious and ethnic identity rule the day. Rushdie first ran afoul of those laws in 1988, when the Indian government banned The Satanic Verses, but his case was hardly the last. The late, great painter M.F. Husain spent years in exile, fearing for his life while fighting multiple court cases related to his paintings depicting goddess figures. This year brings a new iteration, as India’s telecommunications minister, Kapil Sibal, demanded that Facebook, Google and other internet companies scrub their websites of offending content. The government has taken the companies to court, and the judge hearing the case in the Delhi High Court recently warned the companies that if they don’t comply, “Like China, we too can block such websites.”

Sibal (who is, ironically, another speaker at Jaipur, here to flog his poetry) represents one of the great ironies of contemporary India, which has come to value a free marketplace in everything except ideas. Rushdie said it best himself in a 2008 newspaper interview: “It seems like these days India has lost sight of the fact that it’s important to defend these imaginative freedoms. Without that, all this kind of modernizing, job-creating, triumphal India really doesn’t mean anything.”