This article has been published in The Independent.
It is the complaint of the complacent to argue, “it’s all their fault” and in India the opportunity to argue “it’s them” is ever-present. But with the dust almost settled on the Rushdie fiasco, it’s apparent that this complaint against India’s government is not being made often enough.
The handling of the Rushdie fiasco has led to the accusation that the government showed scorn for democratic values. But a stronger charge can be made. The fiasco exposes the government’s willingness to abdicate its duties to protect freedom of expression and maintain law and order. Much worse than scorn, India’s government has shown disregard for its democratic responsibilities.
The issue was only ostensibly a law and order one. Cutting off Salman’s video-link was necessary to avert the threat of violence, we were told. But a detail in David Remnick’s blog is telling: “The security apparatus [at the festival] was…enormous”, well before Rushdie was due to arrive. Could this “enormous” security deployment not have protected a citizen against threats of “elimination” from, what transpired to be, fictional assassins? And if the concern of the Rajasthani and State administration were that the protests would get out of hand, where was the condemnation and where were the appeals for peace?
Religiosising the debacle is another distraction. Muslim leaders and groups have insisted their protests were always going to be peaceful. The way to solve the intractable conflict between the right to say what you please and the right to be respected is not to entertain more theorising. Debate is necessary but in this instance, redundant. India’s legal system has reached a satisfactory compromise on the issue. The penal code provides a right to free expression unless the speaker intends to incite. Rushdie’s presence, physical or virtual, was plainly not intended to incite and so religious sensibilities, according to the law, were in no need of protection.
Here, Nick Cohen’s point about power resounds: “few admit that what makes liberal democracies liberal is that “power” will not throw you in prison [for speaking freely]”. Freedom of expression exists therefore only to the extent that the State will protect it. In this instance, the “power” of the radical, militant few was allowed to stifle free discussion because of the absence of political will. This apathy amounts to an abdication of the responsibility, shared by all democratic governments, to safeguard the right of free speech.
The most pernicious implication of the Rushdie debacle is self-censorship. As Nick Cohen points out in his timely book, fear is the greatest threat to open discussion. Extremists, by definition, flout both the moral consensus and the law. The refusal to apprehend the threat of violence and the patent indifference shown towards free expression by India’s government risks establishing a dangerous precedent. The risk is one of fundamentalists filling the power vacuum left by the absence of political will.
Rushdie’s diagnosis is entirely correct. What his silencing marks is the “decline in the liberty of ordinary citizens to engage in discourse”. The failure of free expression in the Rushdie debacle, however, is not absolute. It’s ironic that in silencing Salman at Jaipur, extremists have catapulted his international profile and have pushed The Satanic Verses once again to the fore of international political and literary consciousness. The victim here is India’s free and democratic society.
The most peculiar thing about the Rushdie ‘black farce’ is that Rushdie, since the ban on his book, has entered the country and attended the Festival without opposition. Salman was not being self-effacing when accepting “the vast majority of Indian Muslims…don’t give a damn whether I come or go”. What is different now? The imminent Uttar Pradesh elections. The suspicion is that the ruling Congress party refused to protect Salman’s rights as a citizen out of fear of alienating Muslim voters. The Rushdie debacle rests therefore on the fact of a government reneging on its present responsibilities to focus on future prospects. What the Congress party have demonstrated is political opportunism of the worst kind.
The Rushdie debacle is the kind of national crisis that draws conspiracy theorists and cries of foul government agendas. Even as we dismiss those, the central issue has been abstracted. Protecting the rights of the citizen, maintaining law and order and safeguarding free speech are all basic and fundamental responsibilities of democratic governments. On each account, in the Rushdie debacle, India’s administration failed. The charge is more than one of simply showing scorn for democratic values, the Indian government’s failures amount to political abnegation.