Bangalore, Feb 1: The controversy around Salman Rushdie's Kolkata visit that never occurred took an ugly turn on Friday. The author slammed the West Bengal administration for not allowing him to set his foot in Kolkata for a promotional event of a film based on his novel Midnight's Children. He said he had to cancel his trip two days ago as he was told just before leaving for Kolkata that the city police would not allow him in and put him on the next flight back. The author tweeted that it was the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who had ordered the police to block his arrival in the city. [See: Rushdie's full statement on the matter]
The 65-year-old author also lashed out at the organizers of the meet where he was supposed to be present saying the latter lied that they did not invite him. Rushdie also tweeted that he had the email and flight tickets sent to him by the latter. The same was said by Deepa Mehta, the director of the film, earlier.
He also criticized the police, said the latter gave his itinerary to the media and called Muslim groups to incite protests.
A Trinamool Congress (TMC) minister of the state said Rushdie did not accept the invitation while an organizer of the Kolkata book fair which hosted the literary meet said the author was making a wild claim that he had been invited. He said the Rushdie was never invited. Another senior TMC MP said they had given a friendly advice to Rushdie to stay away from Kolkata.
The most outrageous reaction came from another MP Sultan Ahmed who called Rushdie a "satan" and said Banerjee's administration had done the right thing if indeed it had stopped Rushdie from visiting Kolkata.
Ahmed, who was a former minister in the UPA government before the TMC quit the alliance, said Bengal is the land of the Tagores and Vivekanandas and people like Rushdie, who he said only incite religious conflict, had nothing to offer. He said the freedom of expression did not give Rushdie the right to belittle Prophet Mohammed.
Ahmed's claim that Bengal is a place which acknowledges ‘true culture' and those who divides religions in the name of freedom is not welcome there is a hollow symbolism. Reducing the cultural superiority to garlanding photographs of the great men of yesteryears and parroting their quotes (even sometimes misquoting) is what Banerjee and his pretenders have been practising in the state.
The government indulges in minorityism by expressing admiration for a poet and makes populist gains. The birth anniversary programme of a seer is turned into an occasion where party slogans are being uttered in unison. Tagore is often made a political capital by the establishment, which also engages in controversy over erecting a memorial for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The opposition blasts such idea saying Netaji's memorial is not desirable for there is no evidence of his death. All this sums up what Bengal's so-called cultural superiority means today. And a minister says Rushdie is unwanted. What would have happened had Tagore belonged to the minority community? Quite a scary thought.
Rushdie, who rued that he did not have the freedom to move around in India, despite being an overseas Indian citizen, made an apt observation when he said: "What is happening in India nowadays is an accumulating scandal and a growing disgrace to this great nation." Citing the bitter experience that people like MF Hussain, Ashis Nandy, Kamal Haasan and others have had, Rushdie said such assaults on artistic and intellectual freedom constituted what he termed as ‘cultural emergency'.
The pseudo-culturalism of Mamata Banerjee government has been exposed by this recent controversy. It is nothing but a cheap and divisive politics. The government, determined not to lose its minority vote-bank, found in Rushdie a soft target and also by attacking the renowned novelist of international fame, found a welcome publicity.
It isn't love for culture. It is a disgrace.