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Im the Dim to Gaddafi, Imran gets a walloping

Salman Rushdie and Imran Khan

“Back in the day, when he was a playboy in London, the most common nickname for him was ‘Im the Dim’’’ Salman Rushdie about cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan in a speech on Saturday in India

Salman Rushdie made a passionate call for India’s citizens to fight to protect free speech in New Delhi on Saturday night. “People here are asleep, very much asleep, and you need to wake up,” he said to hundreds of prominent businessmen, politicians and intellectuals.

“You keep the freedoms you fight for and you lose those you neglect,” he said.

But his speech may well be best remembered for its virtual evisceration of Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who has tried to position himself as the face of moderate, modern Pakistan.

Imran declined to attend the Saturday event, an annual conference sponsored by the India Today publishing group, citing the “immeasurable hurt” that Rushdie’s writings have caused Muslims around the world. Imran was to be the keynote speaker at the event, and when he pulled out Rushdie was elevated to the top spot.

Rushdie said he would try to put the term “immeasurable hurt” in the “context of the real world” for Imran.

“Immeasurable hurt” is caused to the Muslim community by “terrorists based in Pakistan who act in the name of Islam,” he said. Immeasurable hurt is caused to the Muslim community by Osama bin Laden finding shelter in Pakistan, and by a recent survey that showed that 80 per cent of Pakistanis see Osama bin Laden as a “hero,” he said. Immeasurable hurt is caused to the community by the “enormous economic hardships” and lack of education that result from “mullah-driven politics,” he said.

“Imran Khan would do well to talk about the immeasurable hurt caused by these things,” Rushdie said, rather than creating a “bogeyman” out of him.

Rushdie is becoming a sort of totemic figure for India’s appetite for and protection of free speech, since he was forced to cancel a scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year in the face of death threats and protests. Muslim leaders spoke against his scheduled appearance in Old Delhi on Friday, but there were no protesters outside the Taj Palace hotel, where Saturday’s speech was held.

Rushdie’s appearance at the conference caused several scheduled speakers, including prominent politicians, to pull out. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and the newly elected chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Singh Yadav, who has portrayed himself as a modern, forward-thinking leader, were among the no-shows.

Rushdie called that “dumb and depressing”. The politicians were “running when no one says ‘Boo,’ ” he said, “and that’s what we used to call in the old days cowardice.”

While no representative from the Gandhi family was scheduled to appear at the conference, they were not spared Rushdie’s sharp tongue. Some say the Congress party-led UPA helped to keep Rushdie from the Jaipur festival to appease some Muslim leaders.

“It didn’t even work, Rahul,” he said, referring to Rahul Gandhi, who campaigned in Uttar Pradesh to little effect in recent elections. “Years and years of kneeling down in front of every mullah you could find, and it did not even work,” he said.

It was often clear that Rushdie, who sported a black Nehru jacket, was enjoying himself even as he raised serious concerns about Indian society today. After offering up Imran’s nickname, he challenged the politician to a debate “anytime, anywhere” before clarifying, with a smile, “well, maybe not anywhere.” Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, angered many Muslims, some of whom declared a fatwa against him.

Rushdie criticised Imran’s attempts to present himself as the face of moderate Pakistan, while placating Pakistan’s mullah and armies, to hearty applause from the audience. “This is what we call exercising freedom of speech,” he then told the audience. “It feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” he said to laughter and applause.

Later, in a question and answer session, he asked, “Have you noticed the physical resemblance between Imran Khan and Gaddafi,” the Libyan dictator?

Despite the levity, at its heart Rushdie’s appearance in Delhi remained a battle cry.

There is a cultural war being waged in India today against freedom of speech, he said, and it is being “carried out while the general public sits by, mostly, indifferently.” Thanks to bullying and violence by both Hindus and Muslims, “voices are being silenced, to chilling effect,” he said. “Violence is very real and growing in this country.”

“India deserves to be led better than it is being led,” he said, “but it can only be done by all.”

He concluded his speech by saying, “Please do not let the battle be lost.”