January 23, 2012

life in general: the rushdie-jaipur literary festival saga

Muslim extremists are no different from Hindu extremists or extremists of any other religion when it comes to resorting to violence to curtail any harshly critical review of religious texts and religious systems. They got Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses banned way back in 1989 and continue to feel insecured till date.

The Rushdie saga going on current at the Jaipur Literary Festival is an indicator of that ugly insecurity.

Below is a nice insight on the matter that I came across on the web today.


Jaipur Literature Festival – Requiescat in Pacem

JANUARY 21, 2012
by Shuddhabrata Sengupta
Did you know that the law had four corners? I didn’t, but whosoever writes press releases for the Jaipur Literature Festival does. Did you know that the ‘ideas can be exchanged and literature loved‘, ‘strictly‘ within these four corners? I didn’t, but whosoever writes press releases for the Jaipur Literature Festival does.
This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival. Any comments made by the delegates reflect their personal, individual views and are not endorsed by the Festival or attributable to its organizers or anyone acting on their behalf. The Festival organizers are fully committed to ensuring compliance of all prevailing laws and will continue to offer their fullest cooperation to prevent any legal violation of any kind. Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken. Our endeavor has always been to provide a platform to foster an exchange of ideas and the love of literature, strictly within the four corners of the law. We remain committed to this objective. [via FirstPost]
Someone who ‘loves literature strictly within the four corners’ of any enclosure seems to me to be like a diligent user of a prison library. I am sure there are many good people in Tihar Prison whose reading habits fit that description, due to the circumstances of their confinement. I did not know that one could describe the proceedings of a literary festival in quite those terms. One learns new things each day.
And by the way, what exactly, in this case, does the literary and legal genius who wrote this press release mean by the expression – ‘falling foul of the law’? The book-that-dare-not-take-it’s-nameis ‘banned’ (if that is an expression that can at all be used) by being prohibited from being imported into India under Section 11 of the Customs Act. I am not aware that the provisions of this act have been violated during the proceedings of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The Ministry of Finance of the Government of India (under whose aegis the Department of Customs and Excise does its job) which had issued the ‘ban’ order on the 5th of October, 1989 had said in a note released to the press that the ‘ban did not detract from the literary and artistic merit’ of the book that it was banning. Reportedly, in its elaboration of why it took this decision, the Finance Ministry indicated that the book “…had been banned as  a pre-emptive measure. Certain passages had been identified as susceptible to distortion and misuse, presumably by unscrupulous religious fanatics and such. The banning order had been issued to prevent this misuse.” Apparently, the book was not deemed blasphemous or objectionable as such, but was being placed in the absurd situation of being banned, as pointed out by its author, “for its own good! “- in order to protect it from being misused by others. After all, how can a book of high artistic and literary merit be misused by its author, or indeed, by anyone authorized by the author.
As of now, nothing, in my humble (and perhaps ill-informed opinion) has happened at the Jaipur Literature Festival that can be construed as illegal or out of the ordinary. The ban order itself, as we have seen, does not suggest that the book is anything but of high artistic and literary merit. Some people, who are writers, have read aloud from this work of high artistic and literary merit. Isn’t that what writers and literature lovers are supposed to be doing, especially at a literature festival – writing, reading, talking books, good books ?
The peace has not been breached. The contents of the book have not been ‘misused’ – they might have been if rabble rousers had read it and told people to go and run amok.  Or, if they had read from it contrary to the intentions of the author, in order to distort his meaning and purposes. If people who have not read the book, and say they will not read the book, now run amok, those who have read the book cannot be held responsible. If the peace is breached subsequent to this, the responsibility for its ‘breaching’ ought to be seen to lie in the hands of anyone who makes any irresponsible and provocative call to violence or the infringement of the liberty of others. For a condition laden with violence or bereft of liberty cannot be called peaceful. As far as I know, none of the writers who read out excerpts from the literary work in question said anything of that nature. I know them all, they are all, all, peaceable men.
More importantly, no item banned under Section 11 of the Customs Act has been imported. The individuals who read from the literary work that everyone is so exercised about did not have the book in question in their hands. They had not ‘imported’ a banned item into the country. They read from pieces of paper.
Furthermore, fortunately, as of now, as far as my understanding goes, there is no legal provision under Indian law that can criminalize the  mere ‘reading’ of the contents of a book that the law prohibits the import of.  If you have the book in your possession it may be ‘seized’. But nothing prohibits reading. How can it? One could for instance, read and re-read a passage from a book proscribed by the Customs in one’s memory. Can one not share a memory of one’s experience of literature with friends ? Can one not aid one’s memory by glancing at a piece of paper while sharing a memory ?
The prohibition of ‘reading’ would amount to accepting that there are actions that our legal system would recognize as ‘thought crimes’. We have not come to that pass, as yet. I hope we never will.
No untoward incident has occurred. The situation is tense but under control (isn’t it always, everywhere, anyway, in this wonderful land). The Jaipur Literature Festival can rest in peace. Requiescat in Pacem.

  1. January 21, 2012 2:50 AM
    By issuing such pree statement (quoted above in the article), the organizers have shown only one part of their true character. The reality is much more tragic. For that, we must look at the list of their sponsore.
    This year too as in 2011, the organizers and participants of Jaipur Literature Festival have revealed their deplorable callousness towards collapsing ecosystem, rampant human rights violations and corrupt practices of many of its sponsors.
    To read more, click the link below:
  2. Tejaswi PERMALINK
    January 21, 2012 3:49 AM
    We should probably start reading Vamadeva Shastri-Frawley or NS Rajaram to have a clearer idea of the literature that requires “four corners of the law”, the locale excellently described above. While I did find the “Book-that-dare-not-take-its-name” a wee bit overly blasphemous, it is fiction and even if it did impinge on the factual, I see no reason to ban a book. As an atheist I can only gleefully read whatever is written about these characters, however it still makes me feel nauseated when a Prophet cartoon is published in the name of free speech while we know that it is not that alone.
    Here is the funny part, though. A Shia Ayatollah calls for the head of the blasphemous genius and the Sunni public here wants to give the almost-dead fatwa a new life.
    But I am not surprised either – in this era of intolerance. A Polanki with his Sitayana or a Rushdie with his verses will either leave for good or join hands with the very goons who threaten to bash up the blasphemer.
    Nice one, sir.
    • January 21, 2012 11:38 AM
      Dear Tejasvi, I have read Frawley and N.S. Rajarm, and though I find them disgusting, I strongly feel that no text or literary work need be confined with the four corners of the law. The only correct way to deal with literature or writing one finds objectionable is through trenchant, passionate, diligent, intelligent criticism and creativity. I find the cartoons you mention equally nauseating, but there too, i think that the only way to deal with such material is through criticism and acts of creativity and all the resources of ethics, analysis and the imagination.
      I saey this, because I know fully well that thogh what I write may seem reasonable to you, may be nauseating to others, And because I do not want to empower their nausea, I do not wish to boster mine either with the strong arm of the law. We can all throw up, if we like, in our respective corners, and subsequently avoid, if we so desire, exposure to stuff that we find difficult to digest. But to reach for the nanny of the law each time one feels a little out of sorts seems childish, and churlish to me.
      If a text makes a direct call for murder or injury to another person’s body, it is another matter. There are sensible legal provisions that can be invoked in the event of an expression being found suspect of abetment to murder or actual violence.
      The only instance in which I personally would countenance an ethically justifiable act of censorship would involve photographic representations of minors or animals being made to enact sexual situations for pornographic purposes. I emphasize, photographic, minors, severely mentally disabled individuals, captives and animals, because photographic entails the depiction of an actual, not imagined occurrence. Minors, captives, severely mentally disabled individuals and animals are significant because we cannot infer informed consent in either of these cases, and both the making as well as the derivation of enjoyment from their represetnation is a prima facie violation of their human dignity.
      No literary text, (if it does not involve direct calls to physically assault, injure or kill living individuals) no matter how seditious, blasphemous, subversive, provocative or obscene it may be, can meet any criteria that I feel cannot be dealt with in the ordinary course of cultural life and production through acts of criticism and creativity, without recourse to punitive or censorious measures.
      • Sharmishtha PERMALINK
        January 23, 2012 2:55 AM
        This is a very well-written, cogent summary of what the vast majority of us feel about freedom of expression – as long as it does not involve calls to murder and/or the exploitation of minors, no literary text or art should be banned merely because it might be blasphemous.
  3. Yousuf Saeed PERMALINK
    January 21, 2012 8:50 AM
    Why did they invite Rushdie in the first place (and kept saying that their invitation is always open), if they wish to remain within the law? Or is it their corporate (mining) sponsors who are issuing out such press releases?
  4. Shama Zaidi PERMALINK
    January 21, 2012 11:27 AM
    should prints of the offensive paintings of husain have also been displayed alongside the readings just to epater les bourgeois and set the cat amongst the pigeons? makes us all feel so self-righteous all this doesn’t it?
    • January 21, 2012 11:47 AM
      I see no objection to the exhibition of paintings of Husain under any circumstances. None of the paintings are offensive, and even if a work of art is deemed ‘offensive’ by some, I see no harm with it being exhibited. However, this was a literary festival, and while there is no harm in showing visual art at a literary festival, or featuring literary work at a visual arts event, i do not consider it either necessary or mandatory to do so.
  5. January 21, 2012 6:38 PM
    This whole ‘hurting my sentiment’ business seems like a corollary of the clothing-causes-rape argument. Both create a politics around ‘provocation’. Just as ordinary males cannot be relied upon to control themselves in the presence of a skimpily-clad woman (skimpy depending on context could mean say bare arms in ‘cut sleeves’), ordinary devout Muslims/Hindus/Christians/etc. cannot be relied upon to control themselves in the presence of blasphemy. Its all elaborate rubbish, what is really being promoted is violence and ‘lawlessness’ – those who can be called upon to fight, maim, burn, loot, destroy and those who do the calling being the promoters and beneficiaries. Law – with four or eight corners – is some sort of pathetic handmaiden; a jelly-kneed witness to this project to describe its own limits.
  6. Rajesh PERMALINK
    January 22, 2012 7:38 AM
    Is it okay for the sponsors of JLF to be outside the four corners of the law?
    Media statement
    Jaipur : A festival stained by tainted companies
    As the Environment Expert Member of the Plachimada High Power Committee (HPC) that investigated the environmental devastation caused by the Coca Cola Company in the Kerala village of Plachimada, I am shocked to find the Cola company playing the role of a key sponsor at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival.
    While more and more cultural and literary events should take place in India and across the world so that the creed of humanity can be promoted and the sensibility of the society is elevated, it is an ominous threat to the future of the creative writing domain itself that such events are being sponsored by avaricious corporations like the Cola.
    The HPC has found that the Cola company had devastated the local ecology and livelihood of the people in Plachimada village by drying up the aquifer and polluting the soil and waters of the area with deadly cadmium and lead, violating at least eight laws of the land. The damages were estimated to be at a minimum of Rs 2160 million. And the Kerala Legislative Assembly passed a Bill establishing a Tribunal for enabling the victims to seek compensation from the company, which is now waiting for Presidential assent. Shiva Ganga of Tamil Nadu and Mehdiganj of Uthar Pradesh too have been tormented by the Cola giant. And Kala Dera village is not too far from Jaipur.
    It is deplorable that a cultural event is seeking partnership with such a company that was once expelled from the country and is found to be liable to criminal culpability besides providing compensation. And it is a company that instead of showing the sense of remorse has been engaged in an false propaganda campaign against the HPC chaired by an additional chief secretary of Kerala and denounced the Bill passed by the Kerala Assembly. And in Delhi they are deploying all their powers to foil the democratic process of issuing Presidential assent to the Bill by influencing the Home Minister who is still holding the Bill sent to him in March for forwarding to the President.
    Unfortunately, the Cola is not the odd man in the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. DSC Limited was a principal beneficiary in the Commonwealth Games scam! Rio Tinto is known for human rights violations across the global South, behaving like a colonial government in some small countries.
    This festival is tainted. This literature is impure. It tells of the ethical values of the writers who are participating in it. Even Berthold Brecht might not have imagined the fall of the writers to such a level when he warned uncaring writers of the likelihood of being put on trial by the people in future.
    The context in which Salman Rushdie had to cancel his visit to India is deplorable; this and the context that refused MF Hussain even the opportunity to die in his own country inflict deep injury on our democracy. And if the writers throw away ethical values this wound will deepen dangerously.
    Ecologist, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, biodiversity@rediffmail.com mob 9497012590
  7. Anupama PERMALINK
    January 22, 2012 12:19 PM
    Dear Mr. Sengupta
    I’m totally with you on this, but now want to talk about something else: your comments on pornographic photography. Rape is rape and who would argue with that, but of late I’ve been wondering also about “informed consent” in the case of many adult performers as well (who are not mentally disadvantaged in any way). Linda Lovelace’s autobiography “Ordeal” comes to mind, and her subsequent comments that “Deep Throat” is a photographic record of her being raped: that “basically there was a gun to my head the entire time”. I suspect that this might often be the case in a lot of pornography. I have several pro-pornography friends (oh dear, that sounds like “some of my best friends are…”, but anyway) – but when I ask them, “OK, if it’s so great, would YOU act in a pornographic film”, I’m met with silence or “that isn’t the point”. Somehow I feel that it is indeed the point, if we are to agree with the standard of “non-violation” of “human dignity”. Still, pornography rules, and why shouldn’t it – only I feel that informed consent has little to do with how the films featuring adult performers are actually made. As it is, so many of these films are totally non-erotic displays of violence, aggression and power.
    As for the litfest press releases…yes, it’s set new standards of Doublespeak and cowardice. Kitna yeh log darte hain!
    Anupama Chandra

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