Salman Rushdie controversy at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2012

Panel at Jaipur Literature Festival on Salman Rushdie episode

This is a bit divorced from design—apologies. But I believe design touches every other sphere in a human Venn diagram, if there were such a thing. (See the About section in the sidebar.) I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival this past week, and for reasons that have to do with Rushdie and also have nothing to do with Rushdie, it was one of those events that subsequently affects everything you do or make.

Many probably only know of India’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) thanks to the recent cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s appearance due to threats of violence. For those who don’t know, the JLF is now one of most influential and most interesting writing festivals in the world. It is free to everyone, it’s held on the grounds of a historic Rajasthan palace, and it attracts prizewinning writers from all over the world, including winners of the Nobel and Booker. Its focus is not narrowly literary. It includes the entire realm of ideas from journalism to philosophy to science to poetry. 120,000 people attended this year. Science writer Richard Dawkins stated he wanted to see the end of all religions, Tom Stoppard spoke about his early childhood in Czechoslovakia, Singapore and India, New Yorker editor David Remnick talked about the disappointment of Obama, and Oprah showed up. Over 200 writers spoke. But the whole festival was dominated by the last minute cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s attendance. One the one hand this was unfortunate in that it overshadowed other speakers, but on the other it generated a renewed sense of solidarity among writers and readers on the issue of freedom of expression, something that  may come in very handy over the coming years.

What’s odd is that this is not Rushdie’s first visit to India since he wrote The Satanic Verses. It was banned in India upon its publication in 1988, even before the fatwa in Iran, but Rushdie has been back to India many times, and in fact he has already appeared at the Jaipur festival as a speaker before, in 2007. He is by no means banned from the country, and he had not come to the festival to talk about a 25-year-old banned book. The difference was that this year there is a major election in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and politicians appear to be pandering to various voter segments to plump their “vote banks.” The outspoken Islamist minority-within-a-muslim-minority gains more traction at election time. Meanwhile Hindu politicians might willingly fail to ensure freedom of speech in an attempt to win that minority’s support. On both sides this seems cynical, not to mention unconstitutional. Of course there are also many other factors at play, and these will become obvious if you watch the video below.

When Rushdie was prevented from coming, the festival organized an appearance via Skype video. When violence threatened this appearance too, with protestors arriving inside the grounds on the last day, it too had to be cancelled. Here is festival organizer Sanjoy Roy’s explanation of the cancellation. The panel discussion you see in the video below was quickly organized in response.

I have also recorded much higher res video than the video below. If you’re interested, the high res videos of the panel discussion were uploaded here (sorry, had to break it into parts): Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9.

The first speaker in the panel was Tarun Tejpal, the award-winning Indian investigative journalist well-known for tackling contentious issues and in one case actually bringing down a state government after exposing corruption. (Tarun appeared last summer at Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival.) Panel members in the photo above are, from L to R:  Former civil servant and Jaipur resident Mushrul Hasan, professor Salim Engineer of Jamaat-e-Islami, actor and activist Rahul Bose, Tehelka Magazine Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury acting as moderator, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar, and NDTV editor Barkha Dutt.

Below, novelists Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru reading aloud from banned book The Satanic Verses, in protest. The audience was entirely taken by surprise. That was an electrifying moment.

Amitava Kumar & Salman Rushdie read from Satanic Verses

Rushdie’s response to the cancellations:

More reading on this issue:

Reading from the Satanic Verses in Jaipur (2012) by Hari Kunzru, one of 5 authors who read aloud from Satanic Verses.
A trimmed idea of India – Times of India editorial.
The event is over, but deliberations have just begun: Tehelka
Salman Rushdie goes on offensive after Indian festival appearance is cancelled: The Guardian.
Liberals must stop accommodating fringe elements and take a stand on fundamentals: Economic Times
Jaipur Literature Festival: Pilgrims and the Salman Rushdie fetish: Economic Times
Why Salman Rushdie’s voice was silenced in Jaipur: William Dalrymple, festival organizer, in The Guardian.
Twitter Feed of A Lawbreaker by Amitava Kumar (one of the authors who read from Satanic Verses at the festival)

Below, crowd for the panel discussion numbered in the many thousands.

Panel on Salman Rushdie cancellation at JLF