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Rushdie spoke in Delhi without event, proving the fearful second-guessers wrong
Salman Rushdie came to a conclave in Delhi, he spoke his piece, he left. Listening to his words did not cause the audience to spontaneously combust. He delivered his familiar use-it-or-lose-it speech on freedom, denounced votebank politics and religious bigotry, insulted a few politicians, estimated how many Muslims really cared about his presence. The lack of drama and special effects around his talk only showed up how empty all the fuss in Jaipur was.
The Jaipur literary festival controversy had a strange, rehearsed and stop-start quality to it — some Muslim groups were reportedly livid at the idea of Rushdie being invited, and threatened violence. The state government seemed weak-willed, the organisers shared their anxieties with Rushdie, and he finally stayed away. However, the Rushdie issue swallowed up the festival. Others championed his cause, some of them defiantly reading from The Satanic Verses — until the repercussions loomed too big to take on. As it appeared that Rushdie would not even be allowed to speak via videoconference, the surrender seemed abject — India, it seemed, was shamefully incapable of engaging with any writing that struck sparks. Political parties that thought they were competing for the Muslim vote made sure to register their intolerance of Rushdie — to the extent that the state could not even guarantee his security. Salman Rushdie, in their account, was the ultimate red rag to the believers, his presence was an invitation to trouble.
His Delhi visit dissolved all of those ideas, and revealed how entirely manufactured these controversies are, and how they misunderstand what Indian citizens care about. We need to see more of Rushdie in India, to bring him back to human proportions — an individual who can be heard and argued with, not he-who-must-not-be-named. Those who disagree have the right to stay away, without denying others the pleasure of engaging with Salman Rushdie.