Rushdie: India in the midst of a 'cultural emergency'

By Maria M. Lameiras | Emory Report | Feb. 19, 2014

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Acclaimed author and University Distinguished Professor Salman Rushdie. Photo by Wilford Harewood.

Emory University Distinguished Professor Salman Rushdie says he fears for the future of Indian literary freedom in the wake of the controversy over the recall and destruction of a book on Hinduism by an American scholar.

Rushdie's talk during Emory's India Summit on Monday, Feb. 17, was meant to cover new and emerging authors in India; however, the discussion was dominated by curiosity and concern over the decision.

Following protests by the conservative religious group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee and a lawsuit filed by activist Dina Nath Batra, Penguin India settled the legal battle by agreeing to recall and destroy copies of "The Hindus: An Alternative History," which was published in 2009. The book is by Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and noted Hinduism scholar.

According to critics, the book violated a section of India's penal code that criminalizes "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs."

"The casualness of the attacks on the arts in India and the broad of inertia of the mass of the public to the fact that these things are being done arises very little outrage, very little commentary. The attitude is 'if you got yourself banned, it is your fault because you did something you shouldn't have,'" Rushdie says. "We are in the middle of a cultural emergency and the levels of oppression in the cultural area should worry us as much as the political oppression (in India) of the 1970s. There just isn't enough concern about it."

Because of the way the law is written in India, authorities more often side with those attacking literature and art than the attackers, Rushdie says.

Apathy, acceptance and archaic laws

"The attitude of the masses in India ranges from apathy to acceptance of the idea that the law should prevent people from saying things that offend them. The artist or writer or scholar or filmmaker is blamed for having done that. It is not the fault of the bigot attacking him, it is his fault for having inflamed the bigot," he says. "Nobody defends the right of people to say things that other people may not like. If we are prevented from saying something that might offend somebody else, no one will be able to say anything."

Calling Doniger's book an extraordinary work of scholarship, Rushdie worries for the future of Indian culture if archaic laws continue to allow the oppression of writers and artists on the basis of offending someone.

"Literature and art are created by artists who go to the edge and push the boundaries. The history of literature is full of this. In any literature you can see courageous writers who stand against the status quo when they believe it is wrong. You do not have to do this, but you should be able to. It should not be criminalized if you do," he says.