REJOINDER

“Terms like ‘holy war’ should not be tossed around”

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject. He is the Political Editor of Open.
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When Roy writes, ‘The youth, in preparation to an attack, marked each venue by reading from their prayer books in an act most of us are familiar with as a precursor to a holy war or fight’, he comes close to demonising a community.
In a piece titled ‘The Rushdie Affair and the Hand of the Congress’ Open ran in the issue dated 6 February 2012, Hartosh Singh Bal said that the Congress and the organisers scripted a dangerous farce with the Salman Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. The litfest’s producer Sanjoy K Roy argued that the piece sacrificed facts and misrepresented the issue. Bal responds

It seems that Sanjoy Roy can’t tell the difference between facts and opinion. Yet his letter deserves a reply because it suggests the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival are playing the dangerous game of exaggerating the influence of fringe Muslim groups. They risk conflating the acts of a few with the attitudes of an entire community. When Roy writes, ‘The youth, in preparation to an attack, marked each venue by reading from their prayer books in an act most of us are familiar with as a precursor to a holy war or fight’, he comes close to demonising a community.

As a description of young unarmed men who could have at most thrown a chair at the screen displaying the Rushdie video link (and even that is doubtful given that each of them was being tagged by a plainclothes policeman), this is an attempt to exaggerate a threat that, stripped of Roy’s rhetoric, does not amount to much. Terms like ‘holy war’ should not be tossed around with such self-serving ease.

The use of such rhetoric seems to pepper this letter. Consider this: ‘Hitmen and banned Simi (an outlawed fanatic organisation) activists, I suspect, don't advertise themselves to the general public, and I doubt Salman’s query about their existence would have elicited any kind of concrete answer.’ Even if Roy and his co-organisers are naïve and ill-informed about the reality of India (they certainly seem to be), they could have consulted several people present at the festival who would have confirmed or denied the plausibility of such inputs. In fact, in a piece subtitled ‘The Simi Fictions’, my ex-boss and Sanjoy’s close friend Tarun Tejpal, who was a prominent presence at the festival, has written: ‘For the seven years since SIMI has been outlawed, state agencies have been insisting that the outfit is an anti-national organisation engaged in conspiracies to destabilise the government through acts of terror; and that it brazenly preaches sedition, being closely linked with Pakistan-based terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tyaba, Hizb-ul- Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Alleged SIMI activists stand accused of some of the worst terrorist crimes on Indian soil, including bomb blasts that killed 187 people in Mumbai’s local trains two years ago. [But] a three-month long investigation by Tehelka---carried out all over the country---reveals that a large majority of these cases are redolent of a chilling and systematic witch-hunt against innocent Muslims.’

It is fit commentary on what passes for the liberal mind in India that the country can be told that the vast majority of SIMI threats concocted by the country’s intelligence agencies are fictional, but when the same agencies conjure a threat against one of their own, it becomes reason to abandon a visit by Salman Rushdie and SIMI becomes an ‘outlawed fanatic organisation’.

Roy is not alone in this rhetoric. His co-organiser William Dalrymple, often cited as an expert on South Asian Islam, was quoted as saying, “There was certainly a chance that the whole thing was cooked up... but there was a huge amount of intelligence of a lot of dodgy groups going around... We have been focusing on these three assassins, but there were threats from SIMI, from many groups.”

As for the local support that Roy claims, my point stands. If, as he claims, 70 per cent of the 75,000 unique visitors were local, it is amazing that none of these 50,000 people stood up to 150 unarmed young men spread over five different venues. If literacy and such extreme cowardice are to go hand in hand, I can only repeat what I had said earlier: the kind of literary culture Mr Roy & Co have fostered in Jaipur really does not deserve the freedom it seeks.

Unfortunately, when the JLF’s organisers chose to bargain away the right to free expression for the sake of their festival, they did so on behalf of all of us. The result of their collective cowardice is already visible. They have emboldened similar fringe groups across the country, a copycat effect that would have been avoided if they had shown some spine.

(Sanjoy K Roy’s letter: “Seniormost maulana threatened jihad at Jaipur”)