by Daniel Gordon
Twenty three years ago today, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death. The author’s controversial portrayal of the prophet Mohammed in The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini never actually read, set off a war between the forces of secularism and fundamentalism that raged on and off for decades.
About two weeks ago it flared up again, this time in India, Rushdie’s homeland. Rushdie canceled his visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival—which drew such cultural luminaries as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Stoppard—after learning from intelligence officials that assassins from Mumbai might be en route to Jaipur to kill him.
Festival organizers also scrapped plans to have Rushdie appear over a video link after protestors appeared in force outside the venue where the conference was to occur. Rushdie later tweeted that he believed the intelligence received from Rajasthani officials was fabricated. Politicians have been conspicuously silent on the matter, leading some to think that they played a part in the invention of the Mumbai mafia threat. The Indian media hyped up the story, reporting on it for well over a week.
Oddly enough, Rushdie attended the same festival in Jaipur in 2007, without a problem. So why all the hullabaloo now?
“It smacks of political mileage,” declared Triveni Mathur, “because we have impending elections in Uttar Pradesh,” a state neighboring Rajasthan, where the literary festival was held. Mathur, a visiting professor of media and communication at Fergusson College in Pune, India, added, “[Uttar Pradesh] is often considered a deciding factor in political power because there is a strong minority group which is also a very strong vote bank for the Congress.”
So if elections in UP hinge on the Muslim vote, there would be good reason for politicians to prevent the alienation and polarization of the Muslim population by keeping Rushdie away. “The Congress wants to see that all sections of the society are appeased, especially the minority community that has been hurt by the writings of Salman Rushdie,” Mathur said. Her analysis agrees with the one offered by most Indian newspapers, which explain the Rushdie incident also through the lens of the election.
Raj Rao, a speaker at the festival and an author himself , is not so easily convinced: “this business of elections—that’s a cliché,” and noted ironically, “the elections are not even in Rajasthan.” Denying that one cause could explain the incident, he offered a slew of possibilities, some less mainstream than others. “There’s one view that it was all stage-managed, and I don’t entirely disbelieve that,” he commented matter-of-factly, “because a lot of people got a lot of mileage out of it, including Salman Rushdie himself.”
More plausible is Rao’s reflection that the growth of intolerance and the political “mood of the moment” explains Rushdie’s absence. The release of a fatwa calling for Taslima Nasreen’s “face to be blackened” for the recent release of her controversial autobiography supports Rao’s claim that “the right wing has found a voice” in India.
Whether upcoming elections, a publicity stunt, or fundamentalist politics explain the Rushdie incident, all of them point to a failure of secularism in India. “It’s as if the chilies that we’re eating has made us all emotional,” said Anita Patankar, the director of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune. “We do not deal with dissent, with disagreements, with differing voices—we don’t deal with that rationally and logically. We’re an emotional people, and we react emotionally to things.”
Religion is a public event in India, influencing elections and taking to the streets for religious festivals like Holi or Eid ul-Fitr, so any religiously-motivated emotional sentiment—whether peaceful or violent—often spills into public spaces. Indian secularism means giving equal preference to all religions, rather than the Western brand of secularism which strives to give no preference to any religion.
Attempting to explain the Rushdie incident, Patankar—who supports the election theory explanation—disagrees with Rao on the question of increasing religious intolerance: “I don’t know whether it’s the religious intolerance, I think it’s just that in India, religion and politics are too intertwined.” For Patankar, secularism is a matter of separating temple and state: “If religion was kept personal and politics was a public service activity, you wouldn’t probably have so much of a problem.”
Even if separating politics and religion is the key to genuine secularism, the project of segregating the two might seem like wishful thinking in a country where religious tensions easily flare into communal violence, as the 2002 Gujarat riots in Mumbai illustrate, where almost a thousand people were killed, hundreds of places of worship were damaged, and tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims fled their homes.
There were no indications, however, except declarations from a few fanatics, that any such violence would erupt over the Rushdie incident. For now, at least, it seems safe to be a follower of Rushdie in India. Says Rao, “He is our guru and we are his disciples.” That the guru could not return to his homeland shows secularism under siege. The fact that his disciples fought back, however, and that violence played no role in the affair shows that secularism is not mere rhetoric in India. It has real meaning for the people.
The Rushdie incident is the exception that proves the rule: though at times irrational voices seem to dominate its public discourse, India will continue to become more tolerant and secular, demonstrating that a nation of 1.2 billion is not too big for democracy.
Daniel Gordon ’14 is in Ezra Stiles. He is a Globalist Beat Blogger reporting from India. Contact him at email@example.com.