There was a curious sidelight to the furore over Salman Rushdie’s inability to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival last month: the overall reluctance of politicians to jump into the controversy.
Apart from the Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, who got into a mighty muddle over whether the state government had gathered the intelligence input about the assassin sent to target Rushdie or had merely responded to an alert from Delhi, there were few voices from the Congress. Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi rarely speak on live issues, and so their silence was predictable. But the English-speaking ‘liberals’ of the party, like Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid, who are forever willing to engage with Karan Thapar on TV, were, curiously, otherwise engaged.
The primary objective of the Congress was to somehow ensure that the anger of a section of the Muslim community at the likely presence of Rushdie in Jaipur did not become a community grievance. At the same time, the Congress did not want to be seen to be directing an operation that would result in Rushdie’s exclusion. It sought to avert at all costs a Muslim mobilization of the kind witnessed during the campaign against Taslima Nasreen in Calcutta. The entire operation called for duplicity, deniability and subterfuge, attributes that were much in evidence during the course of Operation Stop Rushdie.
Remarkably, for a party that was the real beneficiary of Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to ban Satanic Verses in 1988, the Bharatiya Janata Party treated this year’s Jaipur controversy quite casually. Despite the party spokesman’s clever observation that the government and the indignant Muslim leaders had indulged in “match fixing” to ensure Rushdie’s voice was not heard in Jaipur, the BJP didn’t take up the issue with any measure of seriousness. On the contrary, individual members of its minorities cell were extremely supportive of the clerics and small-town publicists who saw in the Rushdie affair an opportunity to flex their sectarian muscles.
To many of the liberals worried about the implications of opposing a Muslim community demand, the absence of the BJP from the battleground was both a surprise and a relief. The surprise was warranted because the BJP rarely loses an opportunity to berate the Congress for pandering to the most reactionary elements in the Muslim community. Indeed, people have come to expect the BJP to be combative in its opposition to sectarian ‘minorityism’ and were surprised by the relative timidity of its approach.
The surprise was unwarranted. In 1988, when the BJP protested against the peremptory ban on Satanic Verses, it was part of a larger critique of secularism, or ‘pseudo- secularism’, as L.K. Advani called it. Implicit in that engagement was the contention that the political establishment was guilty of ‘double standards’ by pandering to Muslim vote banks. A greater degree of even-handedness, it was implied, could be injected into the system if organized Muslim lobbies could be neutralized by the emergence of Hindu voting clout. In other words, secularism could be restored to its pristine purity when the majority community could rise up and say, “Enough is enough.”
It was the disarming simplicity of a big idea that propelled the creation of a Hindu vote bank of sorts in the election of 1991. Although identified with the electoral fortunes of the BJP, the Hindu quotient in electoral politics has moved in an autonomous direction. As of today, the central idea behind it is neither the creation of a Hindu rashtra nor the decimation of the Muslim communities, but a simple desire to not be taken for granted. It is this inherent passivity underlying the seeming activism that explains why the Hindu vote bank has been a potential, rather than real, force. The BJP may be the preferred party of those who vote with an eye on Hindu self-interest, but it is by no means the only party. Very often the Congress, regional parties and even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala manage to get a look in.
The unique nature of political Hindu consciousness may help to explain why the countervailing force to offset minority sectarianism has been so sporadic. In the aftermath of the Ayodhya agitation, the high point of Hindu activism, there have been few national issues that have captured the imagination of the majority community. The activities of the Sri Ram Sena in Karnataka and the Bajrang Dal may have grabbed the media headlines on occasions and the artist, M.F. Husain, may have been hounded out of India by a determined band of Hindu activists. But these actions have rarely, if ever, secured widespread approval of those whose politics are shaped with one eye to Hindu interests.
For the BJP, fringe Hindu activism has actually posed a great deal of irritation. In 1988, Hindu nationalism occupied the high moral ground because it stood for the rights of a community whose existence and legitimacy were being doubted and questioned by the political establishment. It may also be recalled that one of the very first acts of the National Democratic Alliance government, after assuming power in 1998, was to issue Rushdie a visa to travel to India — a right that had been taken away from him for nearly a decade after the banning of Satanic Verses.
In 2012, however, it was a different picture altogether. After many of its activists dabbled in the campaign against Husain and the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh got entangled in the spirited controversy over the exclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s academic essay on the Ramayan from the Delhi University history syllabus, the party has found itself bereft of legitimacy to really stand up for Rushdie’s right of free speech. Having protested on a number of occasions against writers and artists “hurting Hindu sentiments”, the BJP could hardly contend that the perceived hurt of Muslim sentiments should be ignored in the name of either free speech or artistic freedom.
It is my guess that the Congress gauged the inability or unwillingness of the BJP to get too involved in the Rushdie affair, more so because the issue didn’t involve Hindus as Hindus. Indeed, the BJP was more interested in seeing whether the Congress ingratiated itself sufficiently with the Muslim clerics or alienated itself more from a liberal intelligentsia that has often been used as a battering ram against Hindu nationalism.
The net effect of last month’s fuss over Rushdie is not good for India. There is an emerging consensus that a profoundly religious country such as India cannot afford to have an excessively generous view of creative freedom and that the liberties enshrined in the Constitution must be offset against prevailing perceptions of what Roger Scruton once described as “common decencies”. In other words, if Husain was guilty of offence, Rushdie too must be held guilty of the same misdemeanour. The floodgates of competitive hurt have been opened and it is likely the waters may come to submerge social practices and lifestyles. Events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival, which have thrived on the strength of India’s relatively open society, may find that they will need to enter into political calculations before issuing letters of invitation to writers.
This is a monumental tragedy. In the past, it was widely believed that a combination of prosperity and education would strengthen openness and democracy. India has suggested that this need not be so — although it will not be the first country to demonstrate that progress and regression also go hand in hand. At a time when the prevailing trend is for the bar of tolerance and diversity to be progressively raised, India is discovering a new normal based on exaggerated prickliness.