Renowned author Salman Rushdie recently decided to cancel his appearance at India’s Jaipur Literature Festival due to threats by prominent Muslim clerics. This decision represents a troubling incident for Indian democracy.
Jaipur Literature Festival, South Asia’s largest, serves as a source of enormous pride for the country, bringing in prominent guest speakers and thousands of visitors from around the world every January. In order to maintain this rich tradition and preserve one of India’s cultural gems, the Indian government must provide physical and vocal support to controversial figures attending the festival. This should be a basic expectation of the country and its politicians. Instead, Indian politicians remained quiet after Rushdie expressed security concerns over his travels to the festival.
Any qualified speaker or guest lecturer brings some form of controversy, and not everyone will agree with the speaker, but the ability to express one’s opinions is integral to the country that considers itself the world’s largest democracy. Rushdie’s reasonable fears that he would not be safe at the festival showcase India’s failure to step up and ensure that Rushdie’s thoughts can be heard by all those who wish to listen.
By failing to guarantee his personal safety and thereby forcing Rushdie to cancel his appearance, the Indian government showed that it is hesitant to display any kind of support for a figure that may anger its Muslim population. But, supporting Rushdie’s right to express his views and speak freely in India is not the same as supporting Rushdie’s opinions — a distinction that needs to be made evident.
Allowing a tiny minority to determine the course for the majority is a failure of India’s democracy. A democracy is supposed to represent the voices of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. Instead, India reversed course when its politicians, coddled by fear of losing elections, chose not to condemn the clerics and let the clerics determine the outcome. When Indian politicians shy away from supporting an individual’s freedom of speech in an effort to maintain support, that’s an indicator that India’s democracy faces serious trouble.
If the basic right to freedom of speech cannot be protected and ensured for all of its visitors and particularly for all of its guests, India does not deserve the title of democracy. In order for India to maintain its growing influence on the world stage and be recognized as a legitimate authority on international matters, India must be able to to exercise its most basic duty as a government and protect its citizens from harm or external threat. Given Rushdie’s prominent stature on the international stage, protecting Rushdie would only serve to boost India’s overall reputation as a thriving democracy.
The difference between Indian politicians seeking reelection and their western counterparts seeking reelection is the emphasis their western counterparts place on basic civil liberties. Freedom of speech, religion, and protest goes without saying. Those core values resonate with most western politicians regardless of political stance. They may not agree with what’s being said by opponents and protestors and may openly condemn it, but they will not falter from protecting the right to express those thoughts. India, a country where money, bribery, and corruption speak louder than the voices of its collective citizens, cannot yet compare. If the country cannot protect the civil liberties of one of its most famous citizens, there’s little hope that an ordinary citizen can expect anything else from his/her government.
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