here’s looking at us
Salman Rushdie’s absence from the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) was taken up as a cause celebre by the English press. Editorials and columnists condemned the denial of the fundamental right to freedom of expression by the State and its complicity with the Muslim outfits opposing not just his visit but also his video conference. However, it was only The Hindu and The Telegraph which thoroughly exposed this complicity. The former’s Praveen Swami investigated the veracity of the supposed threats to Rushdie’s life, while the latter reported the close links Deoband has with the Congress and its new electoral ally in UP, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal.
Unfortunately, what was missing from the blanket coverage of the Rushdie episode was the Muslim voice. The entire fiasco began when Deoband voiced its objection, but even its spokesmen weren’t afforded the privilege of a full interview. All that appeared were sundry quotes from Deoband and the various outfits supporting it. Even the JLF thought fit to invite the Jamaat-e-Islami’s national secretary to a debate, but the English press didn’t waste space on them. Why? A long interview with at least one of the leading objectors would have both brought to light the full extent of the hatred for Salman Rushdie, and exposed the hollowness of some of the objections.
Perhaps the English press thought it best not to give publicity to such “fundamentalists”. What about other Muslims? Those days are gone when the English press considered Muslims to be one monolith, represented by mullahs. Only three opinion pieces by Muslims were published: in the IE and the Hindu, not counting TOI’s Speaking Tree where Maulana Wahiduddin Khan voiced his views. Surely there are enough liberal English-speaking Muslims who could have been asked to write or interviewed?
And apart from the two poles – orthodox maulvis and progressive Muslims – who invariably find space in English newspapers, what of the middle-of-the-road, average Muslim? Smita Gupta reporting from UP for The Hindu interviewed many such Muslims in a topical and very relevant piece, considering the entire episode was linked to the UP elections. Reporters at the JLF brought us stray voices of Muslims, some of whom opposed Rushdie but felt he should have been allowed to come. That was about it. The Hindu had a quote from the man who mediated between the protesters and the JLF organisers; surely he deserved more coverage.
Rushdie inspires revulsion even among the most liberal Muslims. There is almost universal support for the ban on The Satanic Verses, which is seen as a malafide attempt to denigrate the Prophet and his wives. The fact that the English press made him a hero, without giving these Muslims a chance to express their anger and anguish, hurt them. That’s why the article by Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Duniya, in the IE, titled “Write, Wrong”, prompted a letter of gratitude by Dr. J S Bandukwala, one of the country’s well-known liberals. The article, by a man who has changed parties quicker than one can keep count, blamed Rushdie for the West's Islamophobia that led to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan! Dr. Bandukwala’s gratitude for it is enough of an indication of the failure of the English press in trying to get Muslims across the board heard on the Rushdie issue. That includes the handful who feel that despite his abuse of the Prophet, he should not be banned.
The consequences of such failure are obvious: the stereotyping of an entire community, leading to a hardening of attitudes by Hindu readers and to Muslims getting convinced that the English press is out to demonise them.
The Muslim voice apart, the entire Rushdie episode was a complex one. But inexplicably, not all the complexities came out in the English press. Rushdie had come to India many times, and even attended the JLF in 2007 apparently without a hitch. The conclusion everyone drew was that Deoband was now flexing its muscles keeping the UP elections in mind. Only in one report by Apurva in the IE, was a Muslim Congressman from Rajasthan quoted as saying that they had tried to protest in 2007 too, but the government had stamped them down.
In 2007, the BJP was in power in Rajasthan. Considering that one of the BJP’s first acts when it came to power in the Centre was to give Rushdie a visa, it was hardly likely to allow his visit to the JLF in 2007 to be jeopardised by Muslims.
Much earlier, in 1999, the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra had filed cases against the members of the Raza Academy for a demonstration in which they had stamped on Rushdie’s photograph. They had been protesting against the grant of a visa to him; protests that were ignored by Mumbai’s Muslims. This time, the same Raza Academy announced a reward of Rs. one lakh to anyone who threw a shoe at him. Mumbai’s leading Muslims, including maulvis, condemned this. But the announcement featured as one of the “threats” conveyed to Rushdie by the Rajasthan police.
Had these facts been highlighted, three important inferences could have been drawn: 1) Muslim opposition to Rushdie has never waned; 2) only governments run by Hindutva parties dare to act tough with such opposition, and 3) the same parties can, when it suits them, back such opposition.
While the Congress's role in backing the Muslim groups came through in some reports, few papers dwelt on the BJP’s support for them. Newspapers reported BJP leaders going hammer and tongs about the Congress’s “appeasement” but no reporter asked them to explain the involvement of their own office-bearers in the protests against Rushdie - a fact that was reported by the same papers. In fact, one of these BJP members has filed a police complaint against those who read out passages from the Satanic Verses at the JLF. Ironically, it was Swapan Dasgupta who remarked on this in his column.
The cynical politics behind the Rushdie episode, in which both Muslim protesters and political parties, secular and communal, played an equal part, did not come out in its entirety in any English newspaper; at least not in their reports or opinion pieces which are read by the lay reader. The overall impression we got was of spontaneous protests by fanatic Muslims ready to turn violent at any time; understandably edgy Festival organisers, a “secular” government that meekly succumbed, and a huge silence by the rest of the Muslims. The implications of such an impression don’t need to be spelt out.