Cultural intolerance

Meek submission

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Salman Rushdie at a function to promote the film 'Midnight's Children' in Mumbai on January 29. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

A protest against Salman Rushie outside the international airport in Kolkata on January 30. Photo: REUTERS

The growing culture of intolerance and the State government’s inability to deal with it once again come to the fore as Salman Rushdie is barred from visiting Kolkata.

WEST BENGAL’S enviable reputation for maintaining communal harmony has often been blighted by incidents of cultural intolerance displayed by a small section of the minority community and supported by a panic-stricken administration. In 2007, exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen was hounded out of the State by fundamentalist forces. The manner in which the Booker Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie was prevented from visiting Kolkata on January 30 shows that little has really changed with the change of government as far as dealing with the demands of fundamentalist forces are concerned.

Rushdie, whose novel Satanic Verses had outraged the sensibilities of a large part of the Muslim world and had Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issuing a fatwa for his murder, had planned to visit Kolkata primarily to promote Deepa Mehta’s film Midnight’s Children based on his eponymous novel. He was forced to cancel his visit in the last minute allegedly under pressure from the State administration as certain sections of the Muslim community had planned to stage protests against him. Although the State administration claimed that it had nothing to do with the controversial writer’s change of plan, Rushdie issued a statement on February 1, in which he said: “The day before I was due to travel to Kolkata we were informed that the Kolkata police would refuse to allow me to enter the city. If I flew there, I was told, I would be put on the next plane back. I was also told that this was at the request of the Chief Minister. I remember that after the Jaipur festival last year, Mamata Banerjee had said she would not allow me to enter Kolkata. It would appear that she has made good that threat.”

A series of contradictory statements and studied silence from the State government only served to make the waters even murkier. While the administration maintained that Rushdie’s decision not to visit Kolkata was entirely his own, Sultan Ahmed, Adviser to the Department of Minority Affairs and Member of Parliament, “thanked” the State government for keeping Rushdie out.

“The State government has done a very good job as Salman Rushdie is only capable of spreading filth,” the Trinamool Congress MP said.

Syed Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati, the influential Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque, claimed that Mamata Banerjee had assured him that Rushdie would not be allowed into the city after he had reportedly informed her that his visit would disrupt communal harmony. “It is clear that the government is not daring to speak on the issue for fear of coming under severe criticism for yielding to the demand of a small group of people. It should come out in the open and make clear its stand,” Surya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly and Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member, told Frontline.

Rushdie was to visit the city only for one day and it may well have passed without any incident had the police not informed certain Muslim groups of his proposed trip. Mohammad Quamruzzaman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, which staged a protest outside the Kolkata airport in anticipation of Rushdie’s arrival, said: “On January 28 the Intelligence Department told me that Salman Rushdie was coming to town and wanted to know if we were planning any protests. I said now that we know, we will certainly not allow him to be welcomed into the city. Just as Praveen Togadia was not allowed to leave the airport in Patna, we did not want Rushdie to be allowed to leave the Kolkata airport.”

Quamruzzaman even wrote to the Chief Minister urging her not to allow Rushdie to enter the city. “Subsequently, the police called and assured us that the Chief Minister was also not in favour of Rushdie coming to Kolkata,” he said.

Sources in the administration have confirmed Quamruzzaman’s claim. “It was a decision based on pre-emptive action. The State government could not risk another explosive situation as had happened in 2007,” on of the sources said.

The reference was to the Left Front government’s decision in 2007 to have Taslima Nasreen shifted out of Kolkata, her domicile in exile, in the face of protests by some Muslim organisations. On November 21, 2007, parts of central and south Kolkata were vandalised as demonstrators protesting against the renewal of Taslima Nasreen’s visa, went on the rampage for more than eight hours following a call for agitation given by the All India Minority Forum and the Furfura Sharif Nujaddidin Foundation. The violence had escalated to such an extent that the Army had to be called out.

However, in a recent interview to a Bengali news channel, former Chief Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took pains to point out the difference between his treatment of Taslima and the present government’s outright ban on Rushdie’s entry. He said he would have at least tried to ensure that Rushdie entered Kolkata.

However, political observers find little difference in the attitudes of the past and present governments in their handling of the demands of fundamentalist forces. The violent protests in Kolkata came just three months after Andhra Pradesh legislators belonging to the Majlis e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) physically attacked Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad on August 9. A week later, Barkati, the same Shahi Imam who was against Rushdie’s visit, demanded the deportation of Taslima Nasreen for “insulting the Prophet” in her writings. In 2006, Barkati had issued a fatwa against her, and offered Rs.50,000 to anyone who would “blacken her face”.

Many observers feel that the government’s decision to keep Rushdie out was political, made with an eye on the upcoming panchayat elections as the rural Muslim vote is crucial for the Trinamool Congress’ victory. However, the short-term advantage the Trinamool Congress hopes to gain may be offset by the overarching impression that its government was not prepared to deal with any untoward situation that might have arisen due to Rushdie’s presence in the city.

The eminent Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharjee said Kolkata’s reputation as a secular cultural centre was sullied by the incident. “What happened with Rushdie has again shown that Kolkata is not hospitable for writers of international stature.” Echoing similar sentiments, the reputed film director Buddhadeb Dasgupta said: “I shall not be surprised if the population of the State slowly decides to stop protesting or expressing their views openly out of fear.”