A Ban on Salman Rushdie in India?

India’s culture police are flexing their muscles again. On the eve of author Salman Rushdie’s Jan. 21-25 visit to India for the Jaipur Literature Festival in the desert state of Rajasthan, the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific, a war cry has been sounded to stop the controversial writer from setting foot in the country.

Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, vice chancellor of the Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband Nomani has demanded that Rushdie’s visa be withdrawn. The cleric wrote to the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government this week asking that Rushdie be barred from entering India “where Muslims still feel hurt by the blasphemous and anti-Islamic remarks in his writings.”

No sooner had Nomani issued his demand than sundry political parties rushed to endorse the ban and the fatwa-issuing cleric. The right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), also the country’s largest opposition party, alleged a "very big game" behind the visa row and accused the Congress of masterminding it. The Samajwadi Party meanwhile said that the government had displayed "double standards" on the issue of giving travel documents to Rushdie. Both parties insisted that the 65-year-old author’s visit would offend the sensibilities of the Muslim community.

The Congress retaliated by asking why it should stop Rushdie’s trip. "If there is a legal provision to stop someone, then it should be put. But whatever step is taken should be taken within the legal framework, not outside it," said Law Minister Salman Khurshid. Interestingly, it was Khurshid who took the lead in raking up a controversy over The Satanic Verses in the 1980s within the Congress party.

The point of friction is Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which was published in 1988. India – then led by the Congress under PM Rajiv Gandhi -- was the first country in the world to ban the novel, which triggered outrage in the Muslim world followed by a fatwa against the author by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989.

In 1995, the Congress government held up another of Rushdie’s books (The Moor's Last Sigh), at customs. It even disallowed the BBC to film a televised version of Midnight's Children anywhere in India. However, media pressure and a concerted campaign by liberals in 2000 resulted in Rushdie being granted a long-term visa that allowed him to visit the country of his birth on “private visits.”

The brouhaha over Rushdie’s visit at this juncture is hardly surprising considering everything is seen through the narrow prism of vote banks and identity politics. Maulana’s concerns coincide with the fact that Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (pop. 166 million), is preparing for polls next month.

The Muslim vote accounts for 17 percent of the total in UP, a crucial determiner of who will wield power there. UP also sends 80 MPs of a total of 545 to the lower house or Lok Sabha, the most among all Indian states. By virtue of their numerical strength, the state’s MPs play a decisive role in who inherits the throne in New Delhi.

In a four-cornered fight, this time Uttar Pradesh will see the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, headed by chief minister Mayawati, lock horns with the Congress, Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. All the stakeholders are thus pandering to the illiberal instincts of theocrats who claim to represent the Muslim community at large.

The Deobandi ban has also found a ready resonance with Muslim leaders who are keen to display their might on election eve. Rasheed Masood, the newly- elected Congress Working Committee member, and a prominent leader from Saharanpur belt, where the Islamic seminary is situated, went to the extent of demanding the cancellation of the entire Jaipur literary festival. Samajwadi Party leader Ahmad Hassan has also endorsed the ban, accusing the centre of "appeasing anti-Muslim forces."

The dynamics of Uttar Pradesh's elections put a different spin on Rushdie’s impending visit, not to mention the fact that it places the ruling UPA dispensation in a difficult position. If Congress capitulates to the Deoband's pressure, it would be seen as trying to appease the Muslim community, which would considerably damage its secularist credentials. But if it doesn’t support the clerics, it risks being called anti-Muslim and lose the Muslim votes.

However, liberals suggest that if it wants, the UPA could easily sidestep controversy by projecting Rushdie’s visit as a private one. After all, Rushdie has traveled to India using a PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card which allows the card holder visa-free travel. No wonder Rushdie remained unfazed over Deoband’s call. "Regarding my Indian visit, for the record, I don't need a visa," the author quipped on microblogging site Twitter.

Besides, as an editorial in the Hindustan Times put it, “Rushdie’s private visits to India are similar to the visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University to deliver a lecture in 2007. If the University and the US could withstand Ahmadinejad’s visit, then surely the Deoband and India can withstand Rushdie?”

Not that the hard-line Hindutva forces are in a position to relish the Congress's disquiet over Rushdie’s visit. Many parties, including the largest Opposition party the BJP and the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena, have a dubious record of protecting citizens’ rights. They were responsible for driving India’s most renowned artist M.F. Husain away from Indian shores to seek sanctuary abroad in his twilight years.

Husain died last year in London unable to visit India – a country he said he “loved most” -- for fear of being attacked. Besides, many other artists, writers and scholars who dare to question these parties’ rather parochial definition of “culture” are regularly threatened and intimidated.

Constitutional experts say that the Deobandis’ demand, couched as it in the garb of 'hurt religious sentiments,' violates the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution. Besides, they add, projecting the Islamic seminary's demand as the definitive agenda for Muslim welfare in the country suits caste-based parties that thrive on identity politics.

“Freedom of speech and the freedom to practice any religious faith are the bedrock of a democracy, said High Court lawyer Vinod Bhansali. "They must be upheld regardless of the political price the Congress may have to pay in UP’s electoral battle.”

In any case, it would be political suicide for the Congress to be seen espousing a situation that mimics Khomeini's original death fatwa against Rushdie. “The party cannot talk about inclusive growth, the common man and developmental politics for all and in the same breath favor some castes and communities over others,” said a senior political source.

Sanjoy Roy, the organizer of the Jaipur Literature Festival, said in a media interview that "A literary platform like the Jaipur festival provides a space for free speech in India's best democratic traditions…In plural societies such as ours, it is imperative that we continue to allow avenues for unfettered literary expression."

However, in a country where caste takes precedence over common sense, sane voices are bound to get muffled by the cacophony of realpolitik.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist. She can be reached at neetalal@hotmail.com.)