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India's blow to free speech as Rushdie misses its literary festival

India's blow to free speech as Rushdie misses its literary festival

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JAIPUR -- The largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific kicked off in India. But Salman Rushdie's absence raises questions about the future of free speech in the world's largest democracy.

JAIPUR -- On the first day of the literary festival Salman Rushdie, one of world's most prominent writers, announced that he will not be attending the festival because intelligence sources have informed him that "paid assassins" were traveling from Mumbai to kill him in Jaipur.

Rushdie told the press that his presence would be "irresponsible" to his family and to those attending the festival. William Dalrymple, co-founder of the festival, called Rushdie's absence "a tragedy" but reminded people that there are 262 other authors are at the festival.

Rushdie's absence

The entrance to the 18th-century Diggi Palace in the heart of Jaipur, the venue of the literary festival, is lined with words of thinkers and writers through the ages. Their simple message--reading makes you smarter. "You must find time for reading or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance," exhorts Confucius. "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over a man who can't read," says Mark Twain.

The irony of these remarks in inescapable in light of recent events that have prevented Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children, from visiting the country of his birth. A small band of Muslim clerics, who accuse of him blasphemy against Islam, have not read the The Satanic Verses, which led to a fatwa in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

But what has agitated many Indians is the government response, which has neither endorsed nor objected to the call for banning Rushdie's entry. People are upset that the government did not offer Rushdie protection. Au contraire, the Rajasthan state government advised Rushdie to stay away to prevent a security threat.

"It is a serious issue and we need to discuss it," Sanjoy K. Roy, a co-organizer, told SmartPlanet. "But more importantly we need to know how the state perceives freedom of speech or are we turning into a police state?"

So is India's freedom of speech stand diluted? It's not just the Rushdie issue, which the government is avoiding for political reasons.  Recently, the Delhi High Court told Google and Facebook that it could act like China if internet companies did not endorse objectionable material.

Plenty of food for thought

While Rushdie's absence is deafening, plenty is afoot at the festival. As Dalrymple said, there are 262 writers here and Oprah Winfrey is also coming.

There is some waiting for registration but far less chaotic than the usual mayhem at large Indian events. Interestingly, the ladies line for the security check is longer than the male queue. Pre-registration on the internet helps to ease the jam. If you have the required email, folks equipped with ipads will give you the entry card on the spot.

If going, do take a minute to be struck by the haveli and generally soak in the ambiance. Diverse landscapes and people stare down from the scores of paintings and photos lining the old walls. A healthy dose of antiques, pillars and chandeliers forge mystical ambiance.

Loads of banter is taking place in four areas-- Durbar Hall, Mughal Tent, Baithak and Front Lawns. People have a wide-range of book-discussions to choose from. One could hear writer, Rosamund Bartlett, discussing "Tolstoy the man" or ponder over "The Vision of the Gurus," which is a collection of poetry that captures India's brand of secular-religiosity. Or one could hear Anna Pavord, author of the Tulip, shares her adventures of searching for a wild tulip in Crete, Greece.

Here is a slice of the discourse. Bartlett talks about Russian writer Tolstoy's correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi. She spoke about his excommunication from the church and the role Tolstoy had in Tsarist Russia, which went far beyond his works of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. "He had become the conscience of the nation in the 19th century," she said.

Navtej Sarna, an Indian diplomat speaking on Vision of The Gurus, talks about how Sikhism made religion less transcendental and more about living day-to-day challenges. "You did not have to go off into a snowy mountain or cave anymore," he said. Religious reforms helped break the stranglehold of Sanskrit-speaking Brahmins over spiritual life in India. The poetry, by Hindu, Muslim and Sikh poets, is in line with the quest of bringing God to the level of dialogue with man --the writers said.

Photos-- Betwa Sharma

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Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure