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    Posted on 24 January 2012
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    JLF 2012

    The event is over, but deliberations have just begun

    Jaipur Literature Festival concludes but marks the beginning of an open debate on freedom of expression and tolerance

    Tehelka.com Bureau
    Jaipur

    Photo: Garima Jain

    In his absence, both personally and from a video screen, author Salman Rushdie has launched what could well have become one of the most important debates on the freedom of expression in contemporary times. Long before the Rushdie video link scheduled at 3.45 pm on Tuesday, the concluding day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), thousands took their place at the Diggi Palace in anticipation of a rich literary interaction and to hear the author’s views on a variety of subjects.


    However, due to security threats by hardliner groups, Diggi Palace owner Ram Pratap Singh decided not to allow the video discussion to be telecast at the venue to ensure the safety of the people and the heritage property. “I have decided not to allow this video to go on air. There are some people who have entered the property and have said that they will disrupt the proceedings,” said Singh.

    According to Singh he had to guarantee the safety of thousands of people, including women and children who had gathered as his guests, and he felt he had no option but to cancel the session and safeguard his home, family and guests.

    Sanjoy Roy of Teamworks, producer of the festival, spoke candidly about being bullied and pushed against the wall before taking this decision. “It's with great sadness that we have had to accept the cancellation of the video link broadcast of the interview with Salman Rushdie,” said an emotional Roy. The organisers and hosts of the JLF had taken the tough decision to bring the curtains down on nearly a month of discussion, and negotiating red tape on the Booker-winning author’s proposed visit to the literature festival.

    The JLF organisers also told the gathering that for the hardliners seeing even Rushdie’s televised image was intolerable. The Rajasthan Police had also warned the organisers of possible violence at the venue if the interview and the discussions involving Rushdie continued as per schedule.

    Rushdie may not have been there, but his absence fuelled a free-ranging debate on the issue, the intensity of which has not been seen before. An impromptu panel discussion in the front lawns debated the very issue that had kept Rushdie away from what has been hailed as the best literary event in the country. The panelists included actor and activist Rahul Bose, Tehelka Editor Tarun Tejpal and Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury. They were soon joined by lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar, and NDTV group editor Barkha Dutt. Chaudhury termed the session “an act of defiance” and was seconded by Tarun Tejpal who called the cancellation a momentary defeat.

    “The battle against bigotry has been going for a while. This is just a momentary defeat,” remarked Tejpal. The crowds cheered in support as panelists discussed the nuances of the freedom of speech in a democracy, while adding that Rushdie's voice would speak in a thousand different ways. “Salman Rushdie's voice will speak in a thousand different ways. It's not a victory for them. It's just a momentary setback for all of us,” said Tejpal.

    Rahul Bose read from the Constitution of India, citing the section within which the freedom of expression should be debated. He added that the fight against censorship and clamping down of dissent should take place outside the space of the literature festival rather than within. “The battle”, he remarked , “has already begun”.

    "Today I'm more upset with the Muslim leadership who has allowed this episode" said Tejpal commenting on the fringe elements dictating terms to civil society. Former civil servant and Jaipur resident Mushrul Hasan, and professor Salim Engineer of Jamaat-e-Islami were also invited to join the panelists on stage to present their point of view.

    "We never like violence, protest should be peaceful. Freedom is the basic right of every human being. The basis of Islam is freedom,” said Engineer adding that Islam, was “not threatened by anyone's words”. “Do you really believe that the beauty or glory of Islam is dented because a man writes a book? Why did you not challenge Rushdie to an intellectual debate on this very platform?” responded the other panelists.

    “Salman Rushdie is not banned. His book is banned. Why wasn't he allowed to come?” asked Chaudhury. The panelists discussed how Islam, in this instance, was being represented by a group of lunatics. Quoting Swami Vivekananda, Tejpal said: “God needs to take care of us. We don't need to take care of God.”

    The role of the media in reporting as the controversy played out was also debated. “Media should not be the oxygen to orthodoxy. They have caricatured an entire community as a bunch of lunatics,” said Dutt.

    “It is for celebrity authors that so much noise has been created. We are all arguing about a book that none of us have read," added Chaudhury calling the turn of events “a disgraceful moment.” At the centre of the controversy a calm Salman Rushdie in a televised interview to Barkha Dutt said, he would visit India as soon as his schedule allowed. “I will come to India many times. Will not allow religious gangsters and their cronies in government to stop me. So deal with it,” said Rushdie.

    According to the author the one positive development from the controversy has been the sharpening of the debate itself.

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    Editing By Karuna John


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    Posted on 24 January 2012
 

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