We haven’t heard the last of L’Affaire Rushdie. It will keep haunting us for some time. The following issues could have unpleasant repercussions:
The act of cowardice by the governments of India and Rajasthan in abdicating their responsibility to protect a well-known personality facing a threat to his life from some extremist Muslims.
He could have been easily protected and any untoward incident in Jaipur avoided by restricting his engagements in Jaipur to the session to which he was invited by the organisers of the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) and requesting him to leave Jaipur as soon as that engagement was over.
In view of the call by the Deobandis for demonstrations during his visit, he could not have been allowed to stay in Jaipur for the entire duration of the Festival. If the government of India had wanted, such a restricted, sanitised visit could have been easily organised. This was not done apparently because the Congress party did not want to displease the Muslim community even by allowing a restricted visit.
The cowardice exhibited by the government of India would encourage similar instances of intimidation in future when any community is opposed to the visits of any person whom it does not like.
The action of the Rajasthan Police in allegedly fabricating intelligence reports indicating the likely possibility of an attempt being made to assassinate Rushdie if he visited Jaipur.
The denials of the Rajasthan Police do not carry conviction. This will severely damage the credibility of the Indian Police and other counter-terrorism organisations in the eyes of the counter-terrorism agencies of the world.
Even in the past, agencies of other countries suspected that the Indian agencies were not beyond such attempts at fabrication of source reports in order to corroborate their allegations. These suspicions would now be strengthened and the word of the Indian agencies would carry even less conviction in future.
Fabricating a source report is considered a serious act of professional misconduct and many intelligence officers have suffered in their career for indulging in it. It is shocking that an agency as a whole--and not just individuals-- had indulged in this. There would be a strong presumption that such fabrications would not have been possible without a collusion or a nod of approval from the government of India.
Unless the government of India acts strongly against those responsible for this fabrication, the suspicion of collusion by it would be strengthened. Intelligence agencies of other countries would be hesitant in future to act on the source reports of Indian agencies which call for follow-up action by them.
The action of four writers in reading out extracts from the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
This was an unwise and impulsive action. The police may not be able to arrest and prosecute those who read out the extracts because there is no law banning it, but in the eyes of large sections of the Muslim community the Satanic Verses is a blasphemous book and reading out extracts from it is an act of blasphemy. Secret fatwas might have already been issued for carrying out Islamic punishments against these four persons and Barkha Dutt, who has interviewed Rushdie. They will have to be extra careful in future.
What we see as a legitimate demand for freedom of expression from the artistic community, is seen by many in the Muslim community as a demand for freedom to indulge in an act of blasphemy against their religion. The extremist mindset of sections of the Muslim community--like the extremist mindset of sections of the Hindus and other religions-- is a harsh ground reality which is likely to continue for some years to come unless there is a better spread of education in the different communities and more enlightened leaderships emerge in them. Till then no amount of public debates and TV talk shows would eradicate this mindset.
In the eyes of the Muslim community, the question is not Salman Rushdie’s right to write, but his right to write the Satanic Verses. No individual and particularly no Muslim can write a blasphemous book. By making Salman Rushdie the high point of the debate on freedom of expression, we will be adding to the strength of the extremist elements in our Muslim community and making it even more difficult to change their mind-set.
The over-focus on the right to freedom of expression of Rushdie could further radicalise our Muslim community and aggravate the polarisation of the relations between Muslims and others. Rushdie’s argument in his interview to Barkha Dutt of NDTV regarding the absence of any ban on the Satanic Verses in Turkey, Egypt and Libya and other Muslim countries is misleading and irrelevant.
In Muslim majority countries, the governments do not have to be worried about the sensitivities and feelings of their majority Muslim population in the same way as we have to be worried about the feelings and sensitivities of our strong Muslim minority. The rights, feelings and emotions of our Muslim community are more important than those of Salman Rushdie who lives far away from India in the UK. In our over-anxiety to be seen as fair to Rushdie we should not end up by being seen as unfair to our Muslim community.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies