The JLF columns: Unhearing the words

(Published in the Business Standard on January 23rd and 24th; both were written at the Jaipur Literature Festival. This is the first piece.)


There were two Jaipur Literature Festivals this year. The first was the festival that attracts readers by the thousands, to hear celebrities like Oprah, writers of the calibre of Tom Stoppard or Bama Faustina, to have their books signed by Chetan Bhagat, Kapil Sibal and other literary heavyweights. This festival was a grand success, drawing record crowds. (Also see: Ten of the Best.)

The other Jaipur festival was the one that Salman Rushdie couldn’t attend, after being informed of threats to his life that appear not to have been actually made. At this festival, when Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzru and Ruchir Joshi read excerpts from Rushdie’s banned novel, The Satanic Verses, in protest at the writer’s absence, they were asked to leave; the festival that had been willing to take on the burden of the security concerns raised by the invitation to Rushdie was unable to guarantee their safety.

For a brief while, it seemed as though the JLF itself might have to shut down, as the organisers and the authorities tried to measure the possible fallout from this form of dissent, and to calculate the possible risks, which were considerable. But as session after session, from the ones on censorship and protest to the conversation on the Enlightenment between AC Grayling and Steven Pinker, noted and protested Rushdie’s absence and discussed the actions of the Gang of Four, the debate over free speech became intense — and polarising.

The lines were rapidly drawn, and the argument that played out over the next few days at the Diggi Palace was fascinating in the accuracy with which it reflected the debates over free speech in India in the last ten years. Many writers were angry and uncomfortable with what S Anand, independent publisher, memorably called the organisers’ pusillanimity and their failure to defend the writers’ right to extreme gestures of dissent. Several writers didn’t see why reading out from a book, even if it was a banned one, should be wrong at a festival of literature, especially when that festival had panels on censorship and dissent.

But the organisers’ actions, however right or wrong they may have been, should be seen in another light — as the actions of decent people, and as an accurate reflection of what civil society does when it finds the space it holds precious under threat. By and large, decent people in India have not defended the extreme and the margins; they have defended only the mainstream, the centre.

The argument most often heard at the festival was that reading from The Satanic Verses was an illegal act. This was presented as a matter of fact, but there is some doubt over this (*in fact, it is not illegal), and some lawyers say there are loopholes — the publication, distribution and dissemination of the physical book is clearly banned, but there isn’t as much clarity over the question of whether reading an excerpt is illegal.

The real fear was an understandable one. The JLF, to a great extent, opened up the space for literary festivals, and many people genuinely fear that this space may be threatened, by gestures of dissent or by the evocation of a banned book that has, truly, become the book that must not be named. Writers like Chetan Bhagat spoke about the need for authors to be more responsible, to refrain, in the tired old phrase, from hurting religious sentiments.

Much of this speculation and many of the arguments that the Gang of Four, so to speak, had stepped across a line was of great interest, but it suffered from a major flaw. The four authors who had held a peaceful, non-violent reading in the festival’s halls were not there to speak for themselves. Rushdie, who had chatted with friends and readers and addressed crowds on these lawns in 2007, was not here to speak for himself, and at the time of writing, there was a question over whether he would be allowed to speak over the video-link.

The problem for the JLF is not the present situation, but the future of the festival. It is very easy to ensure that this sort of incident doesn’t happen again — don’t invite the potentially incendiary. Keep the public commons of the festival safe by retaining the entertaining sessions, and allow some space for free speech. That seems reasonable enough. But the question is, who’s going to decide what that space will be? And when someone crosses another line, who will draw that line for us?

(This was the second part, written on the day that the JLF organisers were bullied by protestors and couldn’t have the Rushdie conversation on videolink.)

Five minutes before Barkha Dutt is supposed to speak to Salman Rushdie via videolink at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the air is thick with tension. News reports say that the festival directors have received death threats. In the lawns, a tight knot of protestors declare their intention to disrupt the proceedings if the Rushdie conversation goes ahead.

The crowds at the Palace watch with more curiosity than fear, at this point. There are three rings around the protestors, with the police and the media adding concentric layers around that small, tight knot.

What happened to trigger this? An invitation was sent to a writer; a book he had written over 23 years ago was read out to an audience who listened politely and then continued on their way to the rest of the festival without rioting. That was all, but that seems to be enough.

Festival organiser Sanjay Roy announces that the conversation with Rushdie cannot take place because of the very real threat of violence, the presence of people who, in his words, are offended not just by the idea of Rushdie’s presence at the festival, but by his image on the screen. As he and the rest of the team come down off the stage, they receive a sympathetic round of applause. They had no other choice, in the circumstances.

This is the way in which the conversation on free speech has gone for far too long. Step across this line, and risk violence — or worse, be blackmailed by people who will threaten other people with violence.

There are some things that are unlikely to happen. The writers who read from The Satanic Verses earlier at the festival are facing cases, and the organisers face threats as well as cases.

But the protestors who moved so freely through the crowds just a few minutes ago are unlikely to face legal action for the threats of disruption they made, nor are the people who made death threats against the organisers likely to appear in a court any time soon. This violence is always one-way, to the point where the simple act of reading is interpreted as an equivalent act of violence, even though, as Hari Kunzru pointed out, a book is neither a bomb nor a knife.

At the centre of this circus is a book that refuses to die. As news stories have reported, it is actually not illegal to read The Satanic Verses, or to read out from it — the book is banned under a section of the Customs Act that prohibits its import and distribution in the country, but the law does not ban the reading of the book. Public readings were held at the time of the book ban twenty years ago, and a public reading being held today as a form of protest is merely echoing an old tradition. Private readings of The Satanic Verses have become so much easier once it became available on the Internet.

A festival might choose, for reasons of public safety, in Tarun Tejpal’s words, not to turn the lawns of the festival into the site of a “bloody battle”. The argument for keeping the festival safe and neutral is being made as I write, and after witnessing the protests, few people here will disagree, unfortunately. Free speech battles, bloody or not, will be left outside the gates of Diggi Palace in future — the festival will continue, but in considerably different form.

But it isn’t possible to step away from the book itself any more, if only because the “other side” will not let The Satanic Verses go. In a looking glass world where a book reading is considered equivalent to an act of violent provocation, perhaps it’s worthwhile asking why a book banned 23 years ago refuses to lie down and be forgotten. Many banned books drop into the black hole of irrelevance, and either the ideas or the language they contain are often rendered obsolete by time.

The real problem with The Satanic Verses is that those who wanted the book banned have not been able to ban the ideas in the novel; how do you separate the language from the content, the text from Rushdie’s philosophy? Today’s demand, for instance, from the protestors was not just that Rushdie be silenced; it was a demand that he not be seen. And what is becoming apparent is that the only thing that would pacify Rushdie’s protestors would be for the book to be unwritten, the words to be taken back. As the author Lionel Shriver said in a different context today, this is what is deadly about the written word: it cannot be taken back.

Somewhere deep in their bones, the people who would rather shut down a festival or threaten people with death than listen to an author understand this: The Satanic Verses cannot be unwritten, and its ideas cannot be erased. The central fact of the Verses is not that it’s blasphemous; it’s that the book argues that religion may be no more than the creation of humans and may be questioned as such. A day before, Richard Dawkins asked why the only prejudice we kowtow to is religious prejudice. One answer today is that it comes armed and dangerous into our lives, ready to kill for its certainties.

Perhaps the fear of violence will prevail, in the short run. But this fear has already taken too many prisoners. What became clear today is that if you cannot safely read from The Satanic Verses today, you cannot step away from it either — the book and what it stands for follow us everywhere we go. Even into spaces that were meant to be safe, and free.

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