I wanted to give a voice to Salman Rushdie: Hari Kunzru
Hari Kunzru, one of the four authors who read out excerpts of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" at the Jaipur Literature Festival and had to leave the city, says he wanted to give a voice to a writer who had been silenced by a death threat
"We knew it would be considered provocative to quote from it, but did not believe it was illegal," Kunzru writes in the Guardian.
A complaint has been lodged with the police in Jaipur against the four authors who read out excerpts from "The Satanic Verses" in an unscheduled session of the festival. The four authors were Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi.
Kunzru said he heard the news Friday that Rushdie would not be attending the festival.
The "sudden eruption of righteous indignation at his presence was not spontaneous. The manipulation of religious sentiment for political ends has a long history in India, and this was merely a particularly cynical example of a traditional election-time activity".
He wrote about the news, "apparently originating in police intelligence reports seen by the festival team, that three assassins had been dispatched from Bombay with orders to murder him".
"...Whatever the truth of this, it was enough to prevent Salman from travelling to India."
He said he and Amitava Kumar were "extremely angry".
"We felt that it was important to show support for Salman, who is often misrepresented and caricatured as a sort of folk-devil by people who know little or nothing about his work. This situation has arisen in India at a time when free speech is under attack. Recent moves to institute 'pre-screening' of internet content, and kneejerk bans of books such as Joseph Lelyveld's masterly biography of Gandhi, show that these are not good times for those who wish to say unpopular things in the world's largest democracy," Kunzru wrote.
"We decided that we would use our afternoon session, in which Amitava was due to interview me about my novel `Gods Without Men' to highlight the situation. We decided (without consulting the festival organisers, or anyone else) that I would make a statement, and then we would quote from `The Satanic Verses'.
"We knew this little-read and much-burned book was banned in India, but it was our understanding that this meant it was a crime to publish, sell or possess a copy. We knew it would be considered provocative to quote from it, but did not believe it was illegal."
The authors downloaded two passages, 179 and 208 words in length respectively, from a pirate text on the internet.
Kunzru went on to write that their intention "was not to offend anyone's religious sensibilities, but to give a voice to a writer who had been silenced by a death threat".
"Reading from another one of his books would have been meaningless. 'The Satanic Verses' was the cause of the trouble, so `The Satanic Verses' it would have to be. We did not choose passages that have been construed as blasphemous by Muslim opponents of the book - this would have been pointless, as these passages have overshadowed the rest of the content of the novel, which concerns the relationship between faith and doubt, and contains much that has nothing to do with religion whatsoever.
"We wanted to demystify the book. It is, after all, just a book. Not a bomb. Not a knife or a gun. Just a book."
Kunzru wrote that he had already finished when Sanjoy Roy came to the side of the stage and told us that we shouldn't continue.
"...the festival organisers were upset. This was something about which they had no foreknowledge, and over which they had no control. The bad atmosphere was compounded by the news that, completely independently, two other writers - Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi - had also read from `The Satanic Verses'."
The author said that the Jaipur police commissioner arrived, interviewed us briefly, and went away, apparently reassured that no law had in fact been broken.
He added that it was left to his friend Sara Chamberlain to find someone to provide legal advice to me.
"This advice was blunt: I should leave India immediately, as otherwise I risked arrest and might well find myself unable to return home to New York until any resulting cases had been resolved."