Karela Fry

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The infirm republic

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Today is the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the Indian republic, through the adoption of its constitution. The famous preamble, in its current version, is available on the website of Ministry of Law and Justice (Legislative Department)

We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

It is a craven mockery of the government’s duty to uphold this constitutional guarantee of the liberty of expression that we saw during the just-concluded Jaipur literature festival. The Hindu editorialized:

This newspaper has revealed how a ‘plot’ to kill the eminent author Salman Rushdie had been invented by the Rajasthan Police in a pathetic but successful attempt to dissuade him from participating in the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival. In the face of motivated protests from a gaggle of political opportunists and religious fanatics, the State government had first sought to stop Mr. Rushdie from visiting Jaipur. Upon discovering that he was, as a person of Indian origin, entitled to do so, it then resorted to a series of increasingly unsubtle coercive means to bring about that outcome. The real issue, though, isn’t either Mr. Rushdie or The Satanic Verses, a book he wrote more than two decades ago and about which he has already “profoundly regret[ed] the distress” occasioned to “sincere followers of Islam.” It is that “the search for truth and adventure of new ideas” India so desperately needs has suffered a grievous blow. After the hounding of M.F. Husain and Taslima Nasreen by Hindu and Muslim fanatics, India has again betrayed its heritage of providing sanctuary to persecuted individuals and ideas, not to speak of its Constitution.

Occupying centre stage in the hall of shame is Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who ought to have ensured his administration defended Indian law by securing Mr. Rushdie. Instead, fearful of being made a scapegoat within the Congress if the party does poorly in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections, he betrayed his constitutional obligations.

The presence of Salman Rushdie in India, and in the Jaipur Literature Festival, would not have violated any laws. If it had, then the government would have invoked those laws to exclude him. Restricting this guaranteed liberty by executive action is forbidden by Indian law, so the covert actions (however unsubtle) by the state government, and the complete silence from the center. Even a former justice of the supreme court converted a question of constitutional propriety into one of sham literary criticism. Daily Mail India reported:

Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju believes Salman Rushdie is a poor and substandard writer, who wouldn’t have become famous had he not written The Satanic Verses.

‘I do not wish to get into the controversy whether banning him (from the Jaipur Literature Festival) was correct or not. I am raising a much more fundamental issue. I have read some of Rushdie’s works and am of the opinion that he is a poor writer, and but for The Satanic Verses, would have remained largely unknown,’ Katju said. ‘Even Midnight’s Children is hardly great literature.’

The former Supreme Court judge said the problem with some ‘educated Indians’ was that they still suffered from ‘colonial inferiority complex’. ‘So, (they think) whoever lives in London and New York must be a great writer, while writers living in India are inferior.’

Does Mr. Katju include Mohandas Gandhi in this category? After all he did confess to being influenced by writers such as Tolstoy and Thoreau.

The right to free speech was exercised in Jaipur by four invitees to the lit fest. TOI reports:

Jeet Thayil along with Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru were asked to leave the Jaipur Literature Festival after they read out passages from Salman Rushdie’s banned book The Satanic Verses. TOI caught up with Jeet for his take on the incidents at the lit-fest.

How did the whole book reading idea take seed?
Before the festival, when we thought Salman Rushdie would be attending too, Ruchir had asked me to read a passage from The Satanic Verses. At that point, I said no as I felt there was no real need to read from the book as the man himself was going to be there. But once I reached the fest and found out that he was not coming, I changed my mind and felt I should read from the book.

What happened at the reading?
Ruchir and I first read from our own books and held question-answer sessions on them. After we were done with that we read from the most controversial passage of The Satanic Verses, which is also the best part of the book. Ruchir and I read out alternate sentences from the excerpt. Nobody stopped us from reading the passage as we did not make an announcement that we were going to read from the book. We did so only after reading the passage and then all hell broke loose. Nobody knew we were reading from The Satanic Verses till we told them.

What about Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru’s reading?
It was only after we finished our reading that we were told that Hari and Amitava had also read from The Satanic Verses in a separate reading. We had no clue that they were also going to read from it. They had, however, read from a fairly harmless part of the book.

What happened next?
We were ushered out and we then met with the Rajasthan police, who did not feel that anything untoward had happened and who, in fact, gave us the best bit of advice anybody at that point could have given us. I can’t reveal to you what they told us, but I must tell you that the most savvy lawyer couldn’t have given us the advice they did.

Were any laws broken?
No, the passage was from the net. Apparently, reading a passage from the book is breaking the law, but we got some good advice and we’re in no legal trouble.

Do you feel other writers should have come out more in your support?
I did not and do not expect it. I knew this is what the reaction would be. But I have said what I wanted to say by reading the passage. The sad part is, nothing’s going to change; the book and Salman are going to remain banned.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is briefly in the news every year. This was undoubtedly its finest hour, when it actually engaged with the single biggest issue that faces writers in any place and in any era. Having done so it may also signed its own death warrant, although one hopes that the Rajasthan state government continues to allow it to take place.

Three generations ago Indians, our grandparents, made their own liberty and wrote it down in a document that belongs to us. The government is our instrument for the protection of our liberties, not the owner. It forgets this in every way: from the notice of ownership it puts on copies of the constitution (see here) to trying to deny authors the right to speak. It will continue to do so unless we affirm our rights.


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  1. […] to remember this in an India where writers are censored or banned and ordinary protesters are jailed and tortured. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

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