x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Jaipur Literature Festival: is the writing on the wall?

Organisers face some increasingly tough questions, has the festival - yet another highly visible symbol of India's yawning social divide - become a victim of its own success?

Protesters and policemen listen to an announcement cancelling a video conference with Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival yesterday. The cancellation followed warnings that Muslim groups were threatening attacks if the call went ahead.
Protesters and policemen listen to an announcement cancelling a video conference with Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival yesterday. The cancellation followed warnings that Muslim groups were threatening attacks if the call went ahead.

The storm caused by controversial author Salman Rushdie's scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival is threatening to put an end to the event itself. But as its organisers face some increasingly tough questions, has the festival - yet another highly visible symbol of India's yawning social divide - become a victim of its own success? Eric Randolph, Foreign Correspondent, reports

This year's edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival could be the last if the tempest over the Salman Rushdie affair continues to swell.

The organisers, led by authors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, have some abject grovelling to do before the Rajasthan government will forgive the uproar caused by Mr Rushdie's scheduled appearance and his decision to withdraw from the event after Indian officials warned that he was the target of an assassination plot by Mumbai criminal gangs.

Both sides of the debate are gearing up for a scrap. Muslim activists have filed charges against four writers who chose to read passages from his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India and is seen by many Muslims worldwide as a blasphemous work that insults their religion.

Meanwhile, free-speech advocates and supporters of Mr Rushdie were demanding an inquiry into reports that the Rajasthan authorities, keen to duck controversy, fabricated the assassination threat to deter the author from attending the festival. Mr Rushdie himself accused Indian police on Sunday of making it all up.

Delegates who overheard a conversation between Sanjoy Roy, one of the organisers of the five-day event, and the Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot on Saturday reported the minister furiously demanded to know whether the four writers were carrying tourist or business visas and threatening to shut down the whole festival.

Meanwhile, Mr Dalrymple was spotted demanding that the four sign letters exonerating the festival of any responsibility for their decision to read from The Satanic Verses.

The debate followed a well-trodden course, pitting freedom of speech against the responsibility not to offend. Still, there was more to the controversy than what many characterised as craven obeisance of the Rajasthan government to religious bigots who, despite the already wearisome debate over a 24-year-old novel, found an opportunity to give their followings a banner to rally around.

The uproar could also be seen as a symptom of the festival's runaway success in recent years, as it has grown into Asia's premier literary event. Last year was already a tipping point, with an estimated 50,000 people pouring through the gates and a sense that the entire population of Delhi's wealthier southern suburbs had relocated for the event.

With that level of exposure and popularity came the backlash, in the form of an ugly spat between Mr Dalrymple and Open magazine over the domination of foreign, particularly British, writers active in the Indian publishing scene. Mr Dalrymple famously described the magazine's article on the subject as "the literary equivalent of pouring [faeces] through an immigrant's letterbox".

Visitors who enjoyed that dust-up were overjoyed to find themselves amid an even bigger controversy this time round, as the Rushdie affair made the front pages of newspapers across the world.

The Oxford professor AC Grayling was just one of many speakers who jumped on the bandwagon, calling for his audience to "applaud the concept of free speech" at the start, fittingly, of his session on the subject of the Enlightenment.

But it was notable that a far more provocative attack on Islam - and, indeed, all religions - by the high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, failed to incite a single complaint from fundamentalists.

"I look forward to the death of all religions," he told another overflowing audience at Front Lawns on Monday evening. "Religion is deadly because it makes people willing to die and kill for it without a shred of evidence to back up their beliefs."

What kept Mr Dawkins safe from assassination plots - real or imagined - was that he is not the political threat that is represented by Mr Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai and spent a decade in hiding after Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death over The Satanic Verses.

Several observers have drawn the link between the pillorying of Mr Rushdie and next month's state elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress party is battling for Muslim votes.

But the festival's success also plays out against the broader picture of 21st-century India, providing another highly visible symbol of the yawning divide between the urbane socialites of south Delhi and the 800 million Indians who would never feel at home in the plush environs of the Diggi Palace venue.

That divide was on conspicuous display on Saturday night, as several hundred delegates piled out of the festival into a series of lavish after-parties sponsored by Penguin and Sula wine.

The latter took place within the beautifully crumbling walls of an old Rajasthani haveli, where guests were bemused to spot several local families staring down from the balconies up above. Equally bemused - and unable to sleep - they watched the increasingly drunken revellers falling over to a soundtrack of 1990s dance tunes long into the night.

As one guest, Nick Booker, a consultant on foreign universities with IndoGenius in Delhi, pointed out: "It was like the 19th century watching the 21st century dance to the 20th century" - an apt metaphor for how the majority of India must view the increasingly alien and westernised gaudiness of the urban elite.

The backlash against Mr Rushdie may have been confined to a narrow band of extremists and their fawning political clients, but it nonetheless reflects that uncomfortable co-mingling in modern India of old and new, privileged and neglected.

There was no small irony in the idea of an anti-intellectual attack on those who have monopolised educational resources in India, and until the government finds ways of including the vast majority in the education system, such controversies are inevitable.

erandolph@thenational.ae


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