(Note: Though this was written after a particular event at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2012, many of the arguments about provocation, the responsibility of the artist and the threat of violence Mukul Kesavan summarises below are made every time there’s a book/ film ban or a censorship debate in India. The question Kesavan raises towards the end of the piece is whether we make it easier to censor art, books and debate by censuring those who don’t censor themselves. ~ NR)

The lessons of Jaipur

by Mukul Kesavan

Iqbal Masud, the civil servant and critic, supported the ban on The Satanic Verses in 1989. His reason was simple: if the book remained on sale in India, Muslims would march in protest, policemen would fire upon them, some of them would die, and no book, said Masud, was worth the life of a single protester.

There were, he allowed, legitimate arguments to be made about incitement, about mobs marching against texts they haven’t read, about self-appointed leaders being responsible for the violence, not the author of the text, but Indians know that protesters are often summarily dealt with by policemen. So while the responsibility for violence and subsequent death might be shared among the marchers, their organizers and sundry organs of the State, suppressing the text was better than setting in motion a train of potentially fatal events.

Aakar Patel, a columnist, offered a variant of Masud’s case when he argued that rabble-rousing leaders incite the masses, newspapers and other media spread lies and exaggerations which coalesce into an inflammatory common sense which in turn fuels pogroms. To grandstand about free speech, as the four writers in Jaipur did when they read from The Satanic Verses, was mischievous, and to grandstand and run away was both irresponsible and cowardly. Free speech in India, Patel concludes, had to be curbed in the interest of public peace and the protection of minorities, specifically Muslims.

Patel’s piece makes the pragmatic case for suppressing free speech or, in the case of Rushdie, free movement, but combines it with censure: writers like Rushdie in the first instance and his defenders, secondarily, aren’t merely insensitive to the bad consequences of their actions, they are faintly contemptible because their modus operandi is to provoke and flee.

Shiv Vishwanathan, a sociologist, argued that this defect, the fact that their defiance of the enemies of freedom didn’t extend to risking arrest or enduring the consequences of breaking the law (assuming for a moment that they broke the law), was a double sign: a token of their frivolity, their unseriousness and proof that the protest was a charade, “…an empty, over publicised performance”.

From Masud’s prudential position to Vishwanathan’s strictures, the argument changed. From the curbing of free speech as a necessary evil we have moved to the irresponsibility of Rushdie’s defenders, first because they didn’t appreciate the need to be prudent and secondly because they didn’t have the courage of their convictions, they were cowards. More, their cowardice wasn’t just weakness, it was compounded by narcissism. By using free speech as a cover for self-love, they acted in bad faith, broke the law, put lives and institutions at risk and then left town, unwilling to confront either the protesters or the law.

From this it was a short step to concluding that they were attention-seeking vandals, “narcissistic teenagers” staging a look-at-me charade instead of saying the sensible things: that they were aggrieved on Rushdie’s behalf, committed to free speech and movement, but mindful of the law and the danger of provoking civil disorder likely to lead to violence.

According to Faisal Devji, a historian, the furore about The Satanic Verses hadn’t been about blasphemy in 1989 and wasn’t about free speech now. In 1989, Rushdie’s juvenile attack upon god, his prophet and revelation had stirred rage in the Muslim world not because it was outraged by his blasphemy, but because the novel attacked the figure of the prophet, the ur-Muslim, and therefore attacked the identity of all Muslims. Khomeini wanted Rushdie dead not because Rushdie’s book was theologically vile (since Khomeini was a Shia and the tradition of interpolated verses is confined to Sunnis) but because he had challenged the this-worldly politics of Muslim identity.

Devji argued that Rushdie (on account of narcissism and/or the need to pander to a Western audience) was out of touch with recent developments in Muslim politics in India. This ignorance had him parroting an outdated fundamentalism-threatens-free-speech catechism that had nothing to do with the current objection to his visit.

The reason the vice-chancellor of Deoband had raised the JLF issue this year was because he and other Muslim leaders were anxious about the impact that imminent reservations for Muslims under the other backward classes category would have upon their capacity to invoke the Muslim community and mobilize Muslims. Other backward classes reservations, in Devji’s assessment, would give Muslims, the bulk of whom were poor, a material stake in the republic and would thus integrate them into the Indian mainstream.

Leaders who traded on rhetorical appeals to ‘Muslimness’ were worried that such a development would fragment their constituency and the vice-chancellor of Deoband was channelling this anxiety by using Rushdie as a sign, in his capacity as the Muslim bogey. Instead of looking for nuance, Rushdie and his champions flattened intricate developments in Muslim politics in India with the sledgehammer rhetoric of free speech and fanaticism.

Allowing for the sake of argument that all of this is true, why should this account of the probable causes of the anti-Rushdie campaign change anyone’s mind about the threat it posed to the health of free speech and movement in India? Devji seems to understand this latest edition of the affair Rushdie within a narrative of Muslim politics; to anyone living in India this is also part of a very different story: it is the latest of many successful bids to intimidate teachers, students, artists, writers and publishers with real or threatened violence.

James Laine’s book on Shivaji led to an attack on the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune where Laine had done some of the research for his book. Taslima Nasreen routinely encounters goonery, bans and threats to her life each time she publishes a book; M.F. Husain was hounded out of India by a Hindutvavadi campaign of legal harassment and intimidation; A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, was purged from Delhi University’s curriculum by its own academic council and vice-chancellor three years after the history department was attacked by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad thugs.

I could, like Devji, find plausible reasons for every one of these attacks, reasons that derive from a need to achieve particular political ends that might well be tangential to the targeted authors and texts. It’s possible that the men who vandalized the Bhandarkar Institute hadn’t read Laine’s book, that they attacked it to consolidate a Maratha constituency. Likewise, the ABVP goons who beat up the head of Delhi University’s history department might have been using Ramanujan’s essay to suggest that a department that employed the prime minister’s daughter as a professor was careless of Hindu feeling.

But neither explanation explains away the free-speech consequences of such attacks: the hesitancy and self-censorship that it produces amongst writers and publishers, artists and exhibitors. I know of a fine, scholarly book on an aspect of the Ramayana story, turned down by a major university press in India because its editors didn’t want grief. For Devji to suggest that Rushdie doesn’t get it, and the reason he doesn’t is because he’s making up to foreigners and otherwise ignoring his own (Muslims), or that Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil are grandstanding or ignorant when they protest against another assault on the intellectual environment in which they live and write, is silly and presumptuous.

Vishwanathan criticizes Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru for running away from Jaipur instead of staying and meeting the consequences of their action in a properly satyagrahic way. In this he is aided by their location: they live outside of India and so characterizing them as rootless or not ‘embedded’ isn’t hard. He doesn’t mention Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil in this context, perhaps because he recognizes that regardless of whether they chose to stay in Jaipur or leave, as ‘resident’ Indians they are subject to the awful majesty of the Indian law. Or maybe he didn’t because it’s hard to dismiss their protest as the posturing of rootless “diasporics” when they aren’t, in fact, rootless “diasporics”.

But let us grant, for argument’s sake, that these four writers aren’t top-drawer satyagrahis. Maybe their motives were mixed, perhaps their enthusiasm for free speech was alloyed by egotism, their courage constrained by a reluctance to go to jail. The fact still remains that they risked something for a cause that their critics accept is a good one. They made a public fuss about the furtive way in which the State colluded with bullying public men to deny a writer his freedoms. By doing it at the event from which Rushdie had been kept away, their protest resonated in a way that it wouldn’t have done in a subsequent op-ed or post-facto handwringing on television. And no one died.

Which makes the contempt directed at Rushdie and his defenders by their critics interesting in itself. Devji is so carried away by his scorn for Rushdie, that he writes a passage disfigured by rage and Schadenfreude: “[I] found the book [The Satanic Verses] annoying because it made no attempt to address those whose beliefs it apparently dealt with, instead situating its author in a position familiar from colonial times, as the native informant there to traduce his people for the pleasure and plaudits of foreigners. Of course this did not justify threatening Rushdie with violence or even banning his book, but what I found interesting was the fact that in the course of the controversy his Muslim critics managed to forcibly insert themselves into the exclusive conversation he had set up with their religion as its subject. Unacceptable as they were, the threats against Rushdie offered him the opportunity to become a real hero in the cause of free expression. But he has never had the courage of his convictions, first voicing his contempt of Rajiv Gandhi for banning the book in a context where Indian citizens were being killed in police firing, then apologizing to the Iranian regime for writing it, only to recant once again when his contrition wasn’t deemed to go far enough.”

Apart from sounding exactly like Nargis accusing Satyajit Ray of peddling India’s poverty in his films to pander to foreigners, Devji sounds like H. Hatterr overheating. “Traduce his people”? “The plaudits of foreigners”? The ugliness of the allegations is underlined by the suddenly orotund prose. Notice the way in which Devji alternates between trashing Rushdie and parenthetically deploring attacks on his book and his life. His disapproval of violence doesn’t stop him from being “interested” in the way angry Muslims got Rushdie to deal with them. Yes, it is fascinating how a death sentence gets writers to attend.

Perhaps the lesson to learn from these critiques of the protest at Jaipur is this: the limits on free speech in India don’t have to be set by external enforcers because there are many critics (both resident and diasporic) keen to censure others for not censoring themselves.

(Carried with the author’s permission; first published in The Kolkata Telegraph, February 13, 2012. Mukul Kesavan, writer and essayist, is also the co-editor of Civil Lines.)

(More posts from Banned Books Week, here.)