Thiruvananthapuram MP and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said “the stabbing (on Salman Rushdie) is an unacceptable assault on freedom of expression. The reply to offensive words always ought to be with words, not knives or bullets.”
In his opinion article for The Quint, Shashi Tharoor, who is also an author, wrote that if writers had to go around fearing that their creative work could result in assassination, the threat of violence becomes an extreme form of censorship.
The near fatal attack on renowned novelist Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state on Friday has left many writers and readers alike stunned. The author of Midnight's Children was stabbed just as he was preparing to deliver a talk on artistic freedom.
As The 75-year-old author suffered severed nerves in an arm and damage to liver in the brutal attack, he’s been put on a ventilator and may lose an eye, his agent has said.
Salman Rushdie’s 1989 novel The Satanic Verses was termed blasphemous across the Muslim world and the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini had called upon Muslims to kill the novelist for blasphemy, following which Rushdie went into nine years of hiding.
It’s been 33 years after the original fatwa by an Iranian cleric, it is fair to say that few expected the threat to materialise now in an actual assault. Interestingly, the suspect, Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old man from Fairview, New Jersey, had not even been born when the original fatwa was issued.
Tharoor also notes that attack also does a disservice to the Muslim community, raising the spectre of intolerance and violence that many are only too quick to associate with Islam. The episode will reinforce the prejudices of bigots everywhere against the religion and its adherents.
On a personal note, it saddens me to think that more and more writers and artists – and the events in which they appear – will need to adopt security measures.
Tharoor, who is also a politician, writes we all value our privacy and personal autonomy. “While some Indian politicians might enjoy going around surrounded by security men, most normal human beings do not.”
He pointed out that the Norwegian and Japanese translators of the novel were murdered by Muslim fanatics in 1991. Rushdie stayed under police protection, living in secret addresses under pseudonyms (the most famous of which, “Joseph Anton”, is the title of his 2012 book describing those years) until the Iranian government declared in 1998 that it would no longer back the fatwa. However, Khomeini's successor as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did say in 2019 that the fatwa was "irrevocable".
Tharoor further recalled his meeting with Rushdie, at the cusp of the millennium, strolling down a New York street alone for lunch and without needing security. It took almost a decade for him to regain that degree of normalcy. Those days are, sadly, now over for him and for those who would host him.
Congress MP says that some writers who write on controversial subjects cannot be put on a public stage without elaborate security precautions. This could be a dampener for those organisers who are unable or unwilling to take on such an additional burden. And it could restrict the opportunities available to such writers to reach a significant audience. That, too, could have a negative effect on freedom of expression.
Tharoor said most writers would normally fear a bad review; the worst might be a rotten egg or tomato hurled by an offended reader. You wipe the stain off and carry on. But losing an eye and nursing a damaged arm is a high price for a 75-year-old writer to pay for his literary notoriety.
Ever since Midnight’s Children in 1981, Salman Rushdie, as a writer of the highest quality, has expanded the boundaries of the possible in his writing. Every Indian writer who has followed in his wake owes him a debt of gratitude for what he has accomplished. The Congress leader wished Salman Rushdie a speedy and complete recovery from his wounds.
(With inputs from an opinion piece authored by Dr Shashi Tharoor for The Quint) Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own.