After Ashis Nandy in Jaipur, it is turn for Salman Rushdie in Kolkata. According to a report published in The Telegraph, the noted novelist's visit to Kolkata was called off at the last minute after the West Bengal government raised an objection and an ultimatum was served by the police.
What was more shocking is that Rushdie did not even have any event scheduled in Kolkata. It was some of the crew members of Midnight's Children, the film which is an adaptation of Rushdie's novel of the same name, including director Deepa Mehta, who were supposed to be present at the literary meet.
But according to a source, the police and a senior minister called the Kolkata book fair authorities (the Kolkata Literary Meet is being held on the book fair premises) on whether Rushdie featured in any of the programmes and the literary meet organisers were asked to promise in written that the renowned novelist would not turn up at the programme. It was also said that Rushdie would be sent back on the very next flight if he had set his foot in Kolkata.
An illiberal democracy
The continuing controversy over Vishwaroopam, Ashis Nandy and now Salman Rushdie is raising a basic question: Are we increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy? While Jaipur saw the police stepping in after an intellectual exercised his right to expression, Kolkata saw the worse after the police made a pre-emptive strike against a creative personality. Has the level of tolerance, a major trait of a democratic society, dipped so much in India that we need to call up the police to guard sentiments every time creative minds come together? Can this go on for long?
"I think the stopping of Salman Rushdie coming to Calcutta is a sad and tragic moment in the history of Bengal and in the history of Bengali intellectual courage. We are now a truly shameful, uncultured city, where we cannot welcome one of our greatest writers who has travelled to Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi without any trouble," said writer-filmmaker Ruchir Joshi. It may be mentioned here that Joshi had to leave Jaipur during last year's literature festival after he read portions of The Satanic Verses when Rushdie was stopped from attending the lit fest.
Noted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh also rued the ban said it was an insult to Bengal's cultured claims.
This is not the first time that such an incident has taken place in West Bengal, considered the home of the progressive minds. The previous Left Front government had treated Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen in an unfair manner and banned her book Dwikhandito. The current chief minister, who used to call wrong whenever the previous regime called right, did not say a word on this and it is no surprise that with the reins of power at her disposal now, there will be little change in her political style.
The Kolkata ban is more dangerous for preemptive strike like this will make literary festivals a risky venture for organisers in the future. Fear of community backlash against individual viewpoints will cripple the constitutional freedom and if each time, those who are taking offence at will, drag the 'offenders' to the court, the democratic credentials of this country will be seriously eroded. Can't this dangerous trend be arrested at the very outset?
The problem is the socio-political leadership in this country has reached such low levels that it has become extremely difficult for the educated and the intellectual thrive in the public sphere. The democracy that we practise everyday so proudly is nothing but an art of electioneering where only style matters, not substance. The petty political outfits and their leaders target whatever is at their disposal to gain a brownie point, and if that means victimising an intellectual for his quote or a novelist for his writing, so be it.
Media's hyperbole is also responsibleA section of the media has also made the matter more complicated. The other day, I saw a TV news anchor apparently trying to corner Nandy and in doing so, asked questions that were totally out of context. The anchor had missed the actual point made by Nandy and as soon as he aimed Nandy, some of the other panelists, who had taken great offence over the sociologist's remarks, began rebutting him.
It has become a fashion these days that the media go overboard on every other issue, whether it is Indo-Pak conflict in Kashmir or a statement made by a senior scholar, without actually judging things in the right perspective and this is, at the end of the day, fuelling the tension.
What amity do we expect when we have a selfish political leadership and self-obsessed media acting as the nation's guardian?
The justification that is often presented in the name of defending India's culture is equally shameful. What culture are we speaking about? What great service are those culture-lovers rendering by targetting individuals, who they know can never challenge the power of the community?
Attack on India's democratic ethos
The attack on Ashis Nandy sand Salman Rushdies is symbolic. It is, in effect, an attack on India's democratic ethos. The Mayawatis and Mamatas do not reflect the actual India but the narrow politics that has hijacked this country today. How long can we allow this to happen?