File picture of author Salman Rushdie.
New York: India-born author Salman Rushdie has expressed concern that underNarendra Modi, India will have “a fairly bullying government” and attacks on freedom of expression could worsen if the BJP comes to power.
“I am pretty concerned about a Modi-run government. The indications that it would be a fairly bullying government are already there. We have already seen journalists and writers being bullied and (the BJP) has not taken power yet,” Mr Rushdie told PTI during a session on the importance of freedom of expression at the 10th annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York.
“You already see even more worryingly a kind of self-censorship setting in, people worry that they are going to be bullied and therefore try not to do anything that will attract the wrath of the ‘Modistas’,” he said, voicing his thoughts on an India with Mr Modi as its leader.
Rushdie said there has never been a politician “quite like Narendra Modi in India” and given the high likelihood of the BJP winning the national elections and Mr Modi becoming India’s next prime minister, “we have to see whether the experience of office serves to moderate him”.
During his address at the literary festival’s opening, Mr Rushdie described Mr Modi as a “highly divisive figure” and a “hardliner’s hardliner” and voiced concern that the attacks on freedom of expression and literary works could worsen in an India run by BJP.
He said for India, democracy should not mean just conducting free and fair elections but also ensuring free speech rights to its citizens.
“If freedom of expression is under attack, if religious freedom is threatened and if substantial parts of society live in physical fear for their safety, then such a society cannot be said to be a true democracy,” Mr Rushdie said.
“In contemporary India, all these problems exist and they are getting worse. The attack on literary, scholarly and artistic freedom have gathered force” ever since his book the Satanic Verses was banned, he said.
“This already lamentable state of affairs looks likely to become much worse if it, as seems likely, seems probable, the election results bring to power the Hindu Nationalist BJP so that the highly divisive figure of Narendra Modi, a hardliner’s hardliner, becomes India’s next Prime Minister,” he added.
Last month, Mr Rushdie and sculptor Anish Kapoor were among a group of Indian-origin writers, artists and lawyers who had signed an open letter “worrying about Modi’s rise to power”. (Salman Rushdie, Anish Kapoor lead anti-Modi charge in UK media)
Mr Rushdie said following the letter, “attacks on us in Indian social media has been relentless and paradoxically has validated our fears”.
“We are worried about the arrival of a bullying, intolerant new regime and here are its early outriders – menacing, nasty and vengeful. There will not be less of this after a Modi victory,” Mr Rushdie added.
Mr Rushdie said free speech and religious freedom in India are increasingly coming under attack and writers and artists are being targetted for their work just because a section of the population deems it offensive.
Citing the examples of the banning of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindus and M F Husain’s exile from India for his art works, Mr Rushdie said episodes of this sort are multiplying every week and day and the authorities have “failed lamentably” in their duty to protect free speech rights. (Penguin to destroy copies of Wendy Doniger’s book)
“The climate of fear that has consequently being created is such that the hooligans’ and censors’ work is now often done for them by the collapse of those who ought to be free speeche defenders”.
“India is in the danger of betraying the legacy of its founding fathers and greatest artists like Rabindranath Tagore,” Rushdie said, quoting from the Nobel laureate’s iconic work ‘Where the mind is without fear’.