Jaipur embarrassment

Will the government allow quasi-religious groups to turn the Jaipur Literature Festival into a political akhara every year? Its reluctance to take a stand against the intimidation of soft targets like writers, performers and sportspersons has emboldened the unelected and self-styled representatives of various faiths to make absurd demands. Now, the RSS wants Pakistani writers and editors to be drummed out of India, pending the resolution of the unpleasantness on the Line of Control. Muslim groups want two Indian authors to be disbarred for taking part in an unscheduled public reading from The Satanic Verses at the festival last year, to protest the muzzling of Salman Rushdie. The publication of Joseph Anton had marked the closure of the fatwa era. But it was an election year in Uttar Pradesh, even a dead issue was too good to pass up, and the protesters had prevented Rushdie from appearing at the festival even by videolink.

This year, the police in Jaipur have assured security to participants but in return, they have reportedly asked organisers to ensure that no one's feelings are hurt. It is a bizarre condition, since the best literature is written to question, to provoke, even to disturb. And yet, since the government routinely shirks its responsibility to protect free speech, the request of the police may appear almost reasonable. The resolve of the Union home ministry was put to the test in the decade-long battle over M.F. Husain's paintings. Both the NDA and the UPA were in office during that period. Neither showed any inclination to face down groups who claimed their constituencies had been emotionally hurt, and who were prepared to dish out physical hurt in return. After that, it's been steadily downhill.

Ironically, the government is quite eager to curb the right of expression in the interest of public safety, but unwilling to assure the safety of individual citizens who speak freely. The drama in progress at Jaipur follows other embarrassments as theatre groups and sporting teams from Pakistan have cancelled events and left India. The government should now prevent the establishment of another precedent at Jaipur by standing up to the industry of hurt sentiments.

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