Notebook

Last updated: January 24, 2012 5:18 pm

Salman and the speech assassins

James Crabtree on a grim advertisement for Indian tolerance

Pity the organisers of Jaipur’s literature festival. Theirs should have been a week of highbrow relaxation, rubbing elbows with the likes of Salman Rushdie and Oprah Winfrey in Rajasthan’s pink city. Instead they spent it beset by critics – and cancelling Mr Rushdie’s appearance not once, but twice.

The author was due to speak over the weekend, but pulled out following police warnings that “paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me”. Cue outrage, which only deepened with his subsequent claim that the warning was (perhaps appropriately) entirely fictional; the rumour being that it was cooked up by local politicians keen to avoid the ire that would follow his arrival.

Events took a turn for the worse when a group of well-meaning writers staged an impromptu reading of Mr Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. The move was greeted by cheers from the audience but undisguised panic from organisers – who slapped down the readers in a statement, fearing the wrath of the authorities (and perhaps the possibly fictional assassins).

The damage limitation exercise was enough to placate irked police, but not Mr Rushdie, who went on to ask festival co-director William Dalrymple on Twitter: “Why did this happen?” The writers, meanwhile, fled the event worried about reprisals from local authorities as much as aggrieved literary titans.

Yet as if being assailed by one group of hardliners wasn’t enough, Mr Dalrymple then found a second band of unbending critics on his back: English PEN. In a statement, the free-speech charity chided the organisers for not doing more “to support a group of writers who did nothing more than read from a work of literary fiction”. They later withdrew the statement and apologised.

It looked as though free expression might have the last laugh when news filtered through of plans to beam Mr Rushdie in from a television studio in London. But this too came to nothing, as dismayed organisers cancelled at the last minute – alarmed by threats to the festival from gathering extremists.

What ought to have been a celebration of free speech thus turned into a grim advertisement for Indian tolerance. For all his worries, however, Mr Dalrymple put on a brave face as he made a tour of the lawns of the Diggi Palace, the event’s venue, on the penultimate evening. Buoyed by supportive words from festivalgoers he raised a glass and proposed a rueful toast – “To the assassins!” – before heading off into the night.

Leno’s Sikh joke

The Jaipur imbroglio is one of a series of flare-ups in which India seems intent on cementing its reputation as the world’s most po-faced nation. A second arrived this week, as comedian Jay Leno, host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, showed an image of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, suggesting the holiest of Sikh shrines as a potential summer home for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The joke was meant to be on Mitt – only a golden temple being suitable for his considerable riches – but a censorious government was far from amused. Their exquisitely somnolent bureaucracy moves with unusual speed following such slights, and a minister was soon on hand to label the skit “objectionable”. As one exasperated local put it online: “India, go sit in a corner until you develop a sense of humour.” Quite.

Vodafone’s court sport

At least Vodafone can afford a wry smile, after the decision by India’s supreme court not to clobber it for billions in backdated tax. However, its victory was bad news for another group that followed the case: India’s unemployed lawyers.

Banx cartoon

The nation boasts a staggering 1.2m registered advocates, but even at the highest levels many are underworked – and some had taken to following the travails of the telecoms giant with sporting fervour. These elite legal minds, it turns out, robe-up and head into court each morning in the hope that a job turns up. When it doesn’t, they amuse themselves by watching big cases.

Vodafone’s day in court thus saw a room bursting with hundreds of men in gowns, the vast majority of whom had nothing at all to do with the case, but who applauded the verdict nonetheless. “You need to think of our court as a little like an Indian version of Hogwarts,” whispered one who crammed in. Vodafone’s shareholders, at least, must be happy the magic worked.

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