There is something rotten in the state of West Bengal. The government of the state did not want Salman Rushdie to visit Calcutta. The police and the intelligence agencies, no doubt at the behest of their political masters, made it very clear that Mr Rushdie was not welcome to the city. Their objections were entirely unprovoked since no organization had announced that it would protest if Mr Rushdie set foot in Calcutta. Mr Rushdie has visited Calcutta before and on that occasion no unpleasant incident had taken place. So it is difficult to comprehend why he was made unwelcome unless the intelligence agencies have some kind of ‘top secret’ information that they are not willing to divulge. Assuming for argument’s sake that there exists some information regarding protests, it is the job of the police to provide the subject with adequate protection. It is not the job of the police to make a famous author feel unwelcome. That goes against the culture of Calcutta, or the culture it is famous for. It is possible that the culture has fallen a victim to change.
Calcutta in the past has had the reputation of nurturing the culture of dissent and heresy. A variety of opinions has been articulated and debated in the city since the 19th century. It was this spirit that earned for Calcutta the position of “the intellectual and cultural capital of India”. The city was at the forefront of receiving and appreciating new ideas. This culture is slowly being eroded. One notorious example of this fall in the standards of catholicity and tolerance was in the attitude it displayed towards the writer Taslima Nasreen who had expressed a desire to live and work in Calcutta. The government of the day — West Bengal was then under communist rule — made it very clear that she was not welcome. That incident has many similarities with the present lack of enthusiasm that has been shown towards the visit of Mr Rushdie. The more things change, it would appear, the more they remain the same.
In the case of Mr Rushdie, as in the case of Ms Nasreen, political interests have been allowed to prevail over those of culture. Freedom of movement and expression have been made subservient to considerations that are alien to culture and to Bengal’s intellectual heritage. Mr Rushdie is first and foremost an outstanding writer. The people of Calcutta want to hear what he has to say about literature, art and the about the film that has been made on his novel, Midnight’s Children. They have been deprived of this opportunity by a government that refuses to explain its decision. By so doing, the government has made itself a prisoner of expediency and of intolerance. Calcutta has many black marks against it but the one that its inhabitants will find most difficult to accept and live down is that it is an intolerant city. Now that label is here to stay.