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The Culture Bullies

Banning Rushdie in Kolkata

by BINOY KAMPMARK

He might have written a very indulgent autobiography about his travails and joys as the world’s most conspicuous writer in persecution, but a few authorities are certainly not willing to let him forget his mischief making potential.

There is more than just a little part of Salman Rushdie that loves mischief.  Better that than the discrete, quiet life.  Rushdie preoccupies himself somewhere in the area between ego and doom.  In India, and most notably in the state of West Bengal, Rushdie became the subject of what was termed a pre-emptive ban.  Sandip Roy, writing in the First Post (Jan 30), found it “a pre-emptive strike most foul”.

Rushdie wasn’t even scheduled to speak at Kolkata’s Literary Meet, Asia’s largest book fair.  A “senior minister” had gotten on the blower to the organisers of the KLM, asking if Rushdie would be so much as appearing for the promotion of Deepa Mehta’s film Midnight’s Children, based on his Booker-Prize winning novel.  A written assurance was sought that he would not even be allowed at the event.  There were no protests in advance of the gathering, and not a sense that any trouble would arise – as if that might have even mattered.

It was, in fact, a bad day overall for the culture pundits and consumers in India.  J Jayalithaa’s Tamil Nadu government also banned the screening of Kamal Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam, supposedly on the basis of complaints by various Islamic groups.

Such actions have certainly irritated a host of Indian literati and film makers.  If you were Bengali, it was even worse.  “The Rushdie ban is an insult to our cultured claims,” tweeted an indignant filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.

As ever, writers are considered the firebrands and unspoken legislators of conscience. They write rules as they come, and dispose of others.  One’s holy task as a writer, claimed the Irish author Brendan Behan, is to let your country down.  If idols do arise, trash them with enthusiastic glee.  West Bengal has shown form in terms of its hostility to writers suggesting that it’s the writers who deserve both trashing and thrashing – Taslima Nasreen, according to Roy, was given her marching orders by the Left Front government. In 2007, Nasreen’s Dwikhandita was banned.  Progressives were silent. Her own response to act against Rushdie was furious.  “I condemn West Bengal’s ban on Rushdie in 2013.  I also condemn West Bengal’s ban on me since 2007.”

The suspicions of Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal government, placed under a broader microscope, show that more is at stake.  It must be remembered that Rushdie’s circle of defenders has never been a broad one.  Even those who admire his writings tend to fall silent when another round of condemnation is directed his way.  He carries the suffocating baggage of history.  For heaven’s sake, write, they seem to say, as that is all we are concerned with, even if you are incinerated in the process by the culture bullies.

Other authors thought him foolish. The Rushdie affair revealed that the person with a pen is not necessarily your ally.  Often, they are the first ones to rush in betrayal and shoot off poisoned pen letters.

What Rushdie has become is a trope of anticipated violence both tribal and authoritarian.  While he has been, and no doubt in some circles remains, a genuine target of fundamentalist groups, the mystique of terror and sheer irritating nuisance goes beyond that.  He has become a pop symbol of what authorship can do, in terms of blood dripping envy and social instability.

What is stunning is that his writing, for the most part, does not deserve it, betraying a remarkably stunted maturity on the part of many of his critics, of both the lethal and more benign sort.  “The police had prior information that there might be law and order problems,” explained Idris Ali of the Trinamool Congress.  But India is permanently beset by challenges to law and order that do not necessarily require such actions.  Rushdie doesn’t even have to speak, or move to cause the murmurings of concern.  The assumption that he might be setting foot in an auditorium, or in a place of literary merit, is enough to require his erasure.

According to writer Amitav Ghosh, himself a guest at the KLM, the repressors have changed.  “We were worried about the State repressing us.  Today, the main threat to freedom of speech comes from non-State actors” (The Hindu, Jan 31). What Ghosh ignores is that complicity is required: an abject capitulation to non-state interests in the name of state security and culture bullying is a trend West Bengal might wish to redress.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com