February issue 2012
Letter from India: Rushdie Interrupted
As an agnostic — I think this is the term that comes closest to describing my own ambivalence about faith — I have been rather philosophical about the existence of God. I agree with the French philosopher Voltaire, who said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Perhaps, the fear of God keeps many on the right track, and many indeed draw strength from the unseen power they venerate. A storm of doubt plagued me for years as I struggled to come to terms with my agnosticism, and that doubt still stays with me but does not cause the upheavals that it used to. Now, I coexist peacefully with my nearest and dearest who claim that they have unflinching faith in God.
Despite my personal turmoil, as an Indian I have never been able to ignore the rather worrying presence of God in our polity, thanks to the politics of religion since 1947. I have often wondered if our secularism is indeed premised on the shaky foundation of a politically manipulated propaganda and a Bollywood-scripted utopia. I believe I’ve received my answers from my own experiences which tell me that ‘Amar, Akbar and Antony’ would prefer to exist peacefully and in perfect harmony. But this utopian desire for coexistence is challenged by the politics of religion, whereby, politicians receive the unabashed sponsorship of both the clerics, as well as a certain cadre of the intellectual.
In India, unfortunately, mainstream politicians see Muslims first as a vote bank and then as any other entity. There is a mad rush to win their support in electoral politics. Individually, a lack of positive apolitical leadership from the Muslim community itself has strengthened the hands of these clerics and politicians. Here, in this avowedly secular country that hosts the third largest Muslim population of the world, there is a mishmash of political forces affecting voting day.
The ruling Congress began this trend and then, to a great extent perfected the art of wooing minorities. Subsequently, the regional forces also worked up to the fact. So much so, that Uttar Pradesh politician Mulayam Singh Yadav is mockingly called Maulana Mulayam and in the eastern state of West Bengal, and the powerful female politician, Mamata Banerjee, covers her head at Muslim functions to show her solidarity with the community. And wonder of all wonders, the Gujarat riots-tainted Narendra Modi, who is so fixedly eyeing a national role, also enacted a three-day communal harmony fast drafting in the Muslim clerics to join the spectacle.
These political machinations by ruling politicians have, in fact, widened the religious gap between majority and minority communities in India. The more a politician acquiesced to the rather unjust demands of a particular minority group — so often it is a minority Hindu group, such as in the case of the eminent Indian painter, the late Maqbool Fida Husain — the more it succeeded in weakening the naturalness of social bonding between communities.
Countless ordinary Muslims in India, and even in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, are struggling with every other Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, who has a similar issue with religious profiling. They are all as much victims of terrorism as any other community. In global melting pots such as the social media and chatrooms, they speak the same language, have the same cravings and do not call upon religion to announce their presence.
Muslims have been at the forefront of the cultural and creative bandwagon in India. There have been more daring female sex symbols in the Bollywood film industry from the Muslim community than from the Hindu community and the three top film actors in India today are all Muslims. Some time ago when the Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena tried to stop the screening of a Shahrukh Khan film, people, cutting across religion, thronged the theatres and frustrated that attempt.
The latest in this litany of mob politics has been the Salman Rushdie episode at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF). A video conference was scheduled with Rushdie after he was forced to cancel his trip to India, following threats of an assassination plot. Later, his video-link interaction was cancelled by the owners of the venue and the organisers of JLF up on the advice of the state police. A few Muslims had protested at the venue and had issued some threats indeed, but the cancellation of the Rushdie event was a real shocker for many visitors.
Sanjoy Roy, a JLF organiser, was in tears and admitted that they were pushed to the wall by the administration. “It is with extreme regret that after three weeks of this unfolding, fairly idiotic situation, we have to step down in a fight for the freedom of expression, for the freedom to write, for the freedom to tell our stories,” he remarked.
Political pundits in India convinced us that the hullabaloo was inspired by the UP polls, where the Congress party is attempting to go all out to regain the heartland state. The Muslims voters’ share is 18% in this state, presently ruled by the self-styled Dalit (lower caste) leader, Mayawati.
But, it was not a handful of protesting Muslims under one banner that led to the ban on Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival — the Muslim community has been protesting about Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for years now. It was the government’s capitulation — dubbed as a political conspiracy by Rushdie and the literary community at large — as a bid to woo Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh, that did it.
The botched up video interaction prompted the British Indian author to label Indian politicians as “a clan in bed with extremists.” He further elaborated that electoral politics in India had played out in the entire episode. Eminent writer Vikram Seth echoed the same opinion stating there was no hue and cry over Salman Rushdie’s presence at the same festival in 2007.
In an interview to India’s NDTV, Rushdie used strong words against the politicians: “…Now I find an India in which religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas at a literary festival, in which the politicians too are, let’s say, in bed with those groups to wish to oppose them for narrow electoral reasons, in which the police forces are unable to secure venues against demonstrators even when they know the demonstration is on its way,” he told the interviewer.
Rushdie was cutting about the derailed event; “My overwhelming feeling is a disappointment on behalf of India, which is a country that I have loved all my life and whose long-term commitment to secularism and liberty is something I’ve praised for much of my life. This decline in public standards, and in the liberty of ordinary Indian citizens to engage in discourse, to hear differing points of view, that’s the thing that makes me saddest. Of course, I’m very sad not to be there but, as I say, I am sadder on behalf of the country in which this is happening.”
In the long list of famous people who left us in recent months, perhaps one name will not figure as prominently as those whom we see more frequently in the media. I believe I must use this space to pay tribute to someone from our own fraternity, who blazed a unique trail behind the camera. India’s first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawala, a Gandhian, who took several iconic images of yesteryear, passed away at the age of 98, on January 15, in Vadodara, Gujarat.
Vyarawalla was known popularly as ‘Dalda 13’ — firstly, since her year of birth was 1913 and particulary because of her car number-plate, DLD-13. Vyarawala caught on lens myriad images of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she called “her all-time favourite subject,” and later his daughter Indira, as well as India’s philosopher president Dr Radhakrishnan and the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, besides capturing the historic moments of India’s independence, especially the flag-hoisting ceremony at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947.
Vyarawala began her career in the late 1930s and worked tirelessly till her retirement in 1970. She studied at the Bombay University and the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, where she moved with her family in 1942. Her career soared after her marriage to Manekshaw Vyarawalla, an accountant and photographer for The Times of India. She worked at The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine, the Bombay Chronicle and the Far Eastern bureau of the British Information Services in New Delhi, where she spent about three decades as a photographer. In the years following her husband’s death in 1970, she moved back to Vadodara, Gujarat, and then Baroda in 1982, with her son Farooq, her only child.
Vyarawalla was drawn to the ideals of Gandhiji and lived a simple life. In 2011, she was awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award of India. A Google search with her name will bring forth a nostalgic black-and-white trip to the past when all those larger-than-life names walked the earth.
The Andamans’ Human Safari
Sold on whodunnits as children in the late 1970s, a specific Bengali film based on a book with an ageing, but hardnosed, physically-challenged detective and his young nephew as assistant was rather popular with us. The film titled Sabuj Dwiper Raja (King of the Green Island) not only entertained, but also familiarised us with the Andaman islands and its tribes, such as the the endangered Jarawas, who could resist any intrusion from the civilised world by shooting poison arrows.
We know since then that Jarawas — whose womenfolk still do not wear anything waist up — are the world’s most protected tribe, just 403 in total, from the archipelagic Andaman islands in the Bay of Bengal. The Andamans are also home to primitive tribes like Onge, Sentinelese, Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Shompen and Nicobarese.
So it came as a rude shock when a London newspaper group posted a video on their website, of semi-naked women members of the vanishing Jarawa tribe, dancing before tourists at the behest of tour operators. The controversial video and an accompanying news report on the site of The Observer and The Guardian was procured by British journalist Gethin Chamberlain. The story triggered a national outrage and invited the flak of activists and anthropologists, prompting the government to order a probe.
As I spoke to several tourists who had visited Andamans recently, I was shocked to know that photographing the endangered community or requesting them to dance before visitors was not uncommon. Several visitors come back with trophy images and video footage of the tribe, after what is now being termed as a ‘human safari’ in the Adamans.
“They feel very threatened and at least a few people should be indicted for contempt of court since the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), that passes through the Jarawa territory was ordered to be closed down for tourists by the Supreme Court of India way back in 2002,” says Professor Shekhar Singh, who has heads a one-man commission set up by India’s apex court 10 years ago, to recommend measures to protect the tribe. “All the 403 odd Jarawas are not seen on the roadside. Some 20 to 30 hang around. But they are susceptible to diseases from us. So the road must be closed,” he suggests.
According to Survival International, one of the international NGOs active in the Andamans, the principal threat to the Jarawa’s existence comes from encroachment onto their land, specifically sparked by the construction of the ATR, a highway carved through their forest in the 1970s.
“The road brings settlers, poachers and loggers into the heart of their land. This encroachment risk exposes the Jarawa to diseases against which they have no immunity, and creates a dependency on outsiders. Poachers steal the game the Jarawa rely on, and there are reports of sexual exploitation of Jarawa women,” says the NGO. On a similar note, Samir Acharya, of the Society of Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) believes that the onslaught on the lifestyle of the Jarawas by mainstream society is almost forcing them to change their way of life. “We can, at best, leave them in their 700-square km territory,” he argues.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Rushdie Interrupted.”