Readersforum's Blog

January 28, 2012

Salman Rushdie case shows importance of book festivals

Sir Salman Rushdie has been told he is the target of Mumbai assassins Photo: GETTY

After this week’s Salman Rushdie controversy, Hay director Peter Florence asks: who should literary festivals give a voice to?

There are two sides to what happened in Rajasthan last week, when Salman Rushdie pulled out of the Jaipur literary festival, after death threats that turned out to be dubious – and both sides are true. On the one hand, almost everything everybody did made an ugly situation worse. The nadir was reached when the decision was made that Rushdie could not appear even onscreen as a moving image. The next logical step would be to ban cartoons of him.

The flipside is that everyone involved won something. Nobody died, and in a country of extreme volatility the police will regard this as a blessed relief. Rushdie is now much more famous in India than he was this time last week. The government can say that they respect the values of the Muslim community in an electoral battleground where they need to win. And festival organiser Sanjoy Roy’s team can enjoy the notion that people across the world have now heard of a literary festival in Jaipur. Even the Imam and his extremist followers can claim they prevented a writer from visiting his homeland…

So is this the end of freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy? Should India hang its head in shame? Follow the hashtags. The overwhelming response from the wry, unbullyable and free-thinking Indian tweeters is, more or less: It’s about time I got round to reading The Satanic Verses – if it gets people so engaged, it must be worth looking at.

Banning books doesn’t work. Not if you want people not to read them. It has never worked. Lady Chatterley, Madame Bovary, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, Animal Farm, The Lorax, The Da Vinci Code, Catcher in the Rye… There’s a pattern here, and it’s a mystery that politicians are too stupid to see it.

Would it have been different at the Hay festival? Maybe. I hope so.

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