Watch Fareed Zakaria’s interview with author Salman Rushdie on GPS, Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET
Global Public Square speaks with Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses” and the new book “Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” about freedom of expression in India.
What did you make of the decision by the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, following protests and threats of violence, to pull out from screening a live video link with you?
Two things. I think one is that this was clearly being manipulated because there were elections coming up and somebody thought that they would get more Muslim votes if they came out against me. It’s very strange, because I’d been to the Jaipur festival four years earlier and there was no trouble, so it was a manufactured problem for electoral gain. It was rather gratifying that the Congress Party that had done this actually saw its share of the Muslim vote go down, so it showed that it was ineffective. But basically, it was engineered in such a way that I was unable to go to the festival, which was annoying. Especially as I went to a conference in Delhi four weeks later – and Delhi is the capital, whereas Jaipur is a provincial city – and there was not a whisper of a problem. Some of the less scrupulous bits of the Indian media went to the same people who made the trouble at Jaipur and said “look he’s over there – why aren’t you making a fuss?” But because there wasn’t an election going on, there was nothing. It wasn’t a real problem. I’ve been going to India at least once a year for years and it’s usually fine.
Were you disappointed at the failure of politicians in India to stand up for freedom of speech over this?
Yes. And truthfully I don’t think the organizers of the festival handled it as well as they could have done. But everything colluded to create that problem and I would hope that as I was able to demonstrate by going to another seminar, it’s not really a recurring problem, it was a one-off blip.
There has been speculation that the move based on your book Midnight’s Children is struggling to find a distributor?
I think sometimes I get annoyed with the way the media jumps the gun. We only showed it at the Toronto Film Festival less than two weeks ago. We have since then been talking to distributors around the world and selling distribution rights all the time. And we’re actually in conversation with Indian distributors. So, in the end, I believe it will be fine.
You said in a recent interview that Pakistan was “on the road to tyranny.” Do you think what appears to be an increasing problem with extremism there will further undermine ties with India?
Relations could scarcely be worse, but I think it will certainly make it more difficult to defuse the situation. What I was trying to say in that interview was that it used to be the case that the mass of the population in Pakistan was not very radicalized, and actually had a very moderate or even casual relationship with Islam. Interestingly, given that it was founded as an Islamic state, the attitudes of the people were not very conservatively Islamist. When they were asked to vote in elections they would vote for non-Islamist parties, secular parties. That’s beginning to change now, and the attitudes of the public at large seem to be getting gradually more radicalized. So, for instance, when the governor of Punjab was killed for clearly defending an innocent woman, a large part of public opinion supported the assassin, because apparently the support of an innocent woman against the charge of blasphemy was sufficiently anti-Islam to justify murder. That’s a great shift in the mood of the country if the mass of the people have begun to think like that.
It always used to be the case that there was a three-part power structure in Pakistan. You’ve got the Army, the intelligence services and the elected government. The elected government is the weakest of these, and was and remains primarily secularist rather than religious. It used to be that the Army was secularist as well – British Sandhurst-educated officers. That’s changed, and now the new generation, top brass of the army is much more religious in its motivation. And the intelligence service, the ISI, always was. So now you have the two most powerful parts of that three becoming more Islamist than before, and so the character of the country has changed.
The Indian government, meanwhile, seems to be getting increasingly prickly when it comes to criticism and freedom of expression.
It’s not just the government. I think what is happening is a very difficult time now because there are attacks on freedom of expression both from political figures, but also from religious sectarian groups, and hooligan groups. And this isn’t by any means confined to books or writing. There was recently an attack on the freedom of a political cartoonist for doing something perfectly innocent and normal for a political cartoonist to do, which was to satirize corruption in the government. And there have been attacks on art galleries showing work that some sectarian group disapproved of. There have also been attacks on academic scholarship, for example at Delhi University, and in Pune where a scholarly library was attacked. And Rohinton Mistry’s novel was taken off the syllabus at Bombay University because of attacks by extreme sectarian Hindus.
So, whether it’s movies, literature or scholarship, there is an increasing willingness to prevent things being said, with the state not usually defending the rights of the individuals concerned. So I think I think we are getting very close to the point where you could say India no longer has an open society.