Thursday 24 January 2013
Once again, religious fundamentalists in India are threatening to disrupt the Jaipur literature festival. The festival has grown over the years to be among the world’s largest such gatherings, bringing together writers from all continents, and, more important, showcasing South Asian writing talent, including the rich and diverse universe of regional languages. The festival has not been without controversies. Last year, Salman Rushdie withdrew after he received credible death threats from a Muslim group.
Five writers protested Rushdie’s absence by reading out excerpts fromThe Satanic Verses. Politicians filed lawsuits against the organisers and four of the authors – Jeet Thayil (whose novel, Narcopolis, was shortlisted last year for the Man Booker prize), Ruchir Joshi, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar – and investigations are ongoing. On the last day of the festival, Muslim fundamentalists refused to let the organisers even telecast a conversation with Rushdie. On 21 January, a few self-described Muslim scholars asked the festival to disinvite the four this year. Of the four, Thayil is the only featured speaker. The organisers have held firm – he should attend.
In parallel, and in a pattern that’s now increasingly, and dismayingly, predictable, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is India’s main opposition party, has warned Pakistani writers not to participate in this year’s festival. Among those expected are Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam (see the interview on page 12), Jamil Ahmad, Fehmida Riaz and Musharraf Farooqi. To their credit, the organisers have also refused to buckle under this threat. The BJP’s demand is technically unrelated to the Muslim call, but it is in line with the fundamentalist Hindu aim, to stop all cultural and sporting contacts with Pakistan, because tensions along the “line of control” – the de facto border that separates Kashmir into parts controlled by India and Pakistan – have escalated. In a series of confusing events, both sides have accused the other of violating long-standing agreements by undertaking construction, firing, and beheading soldiers along the border.
Hindu activists succeeded in stopping two talented Pakistani theatre groups from staging plays of the late Saadat Hasan Manto, a Pakistani writer who grew up in pre-partition India and is regarded as one of the most poignant chroniclers of the partition of 1947. Activists also succeeded in getting Indian Hockey League teams to drop Pakistani players they had acquired in the region’s first professionally run hockey league. Now it is the turn of the Pakistani writers to bear the brunt of Hindu wrath.
This is deeply troublesome, given the vitiated state of relations between the neighbours who have fought four wars since independence. The party-wreckers seek to weaken the festival because it has become one of the few intellectual spaces in India where it is possible for Indian and Pakistani writers to interact meaningfully with one another and their readers. Much to the chagrin of the fundamentalists, Pakistani writers are popular in India, and attract a fond following.
Hindu apologists claim they are only reacting to Muslim intransigence, but that is preposterous. Intolerance cuts across all religions (as we have argued in our respective books, Offence: The Muslim Case and Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull), outlining fundamentalist attacks on freedom of expression). What’s peculiar in the Indian instance is the notion of competitive intolerance, due to which each side tries to outdo the other in demanding restrictions, narrowing the discourse. That’s terrible for India, for Pakistan and for literature.
Over the years, the Jaipur festival has earned the reputation of being an important destination on the global literary map. Any steps politicians and politically inclined groups take to stamp their authority on it diminishes the world. India and Pakistan may have legitimate grievances with each another, but a literary festival, like a stage or a hockey field, is no place to settle them – on the contrary, those spaces exist so that both countries can expand their views of each other beyond the rhetoric of politicians and generals.
Moreover, both Hindu and Muslim groups who want to keep authors away from Jaipur are hurting India’s long tradition of intellectual freedom. It is for the organisers to remain firm in their resolve and stay on the path and stare back at their philistine critics. And it is for the Indian government to ensure that the festival takes place without any restrictions.
• Pakistan-born Kamila Shamsie and India-born Salil Tripathi are co-chairs of English PEN’s Writers at Risk committee.