BY SAEED NAQVI

The Maulana from the Darul Uloom seminary at Deoband who threatened the Jaipur Literary Festival with disruption, in case Salman Rushdie participated, is only the latest in a long list of spoilsports appointed by God.

When Pakistan was beginning to take shape and had not yet acquired the Islamic passion it is currently famous for, the country’s second Prime Minister, Haji Sir Khwaja Nazimuddin, organized a cultural evening where the great Sarangi player, Ustad Bundu Khan, was the star attraction. Among the invitees was a Maulana.

When it was time for the guests to depart, master of ceremonies “Patras” Bukhari, himself a great wit and man of letters, escorted the Maulana to a limousine. Since Ustad Bundu Khan lived in the same direction, Patras requested the Sarangi maestro to accompany the Maulana.

Next morning the Prime Minister found himself facing a Maulana shaking with rage. “How dare Patras expect me to accompany a Sarangi player!”

The PM promptly called Patras and acquainted him with the delicacy of the matter. “You must do what is proper and report to me.”

Patras informed the PM the following day that he had taken suitable action. “I have apologized to Ustad Bundu Khan!” The Maulana on one side Patras and Bundu Khan on the other have rolled along parallel tracks from medieval times.

In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi, in political difficulties, needed the Muslim vote. This was the reason he succumbed to pressure from the so called Muslim leaders and banned Satanic Verses.

Even in those days opinion among Muslims was divided. Clearly Rushdie had, while talking about the Prophet’s wives, transgressed from the sort of irreverence which is part of literary license to hurtful rudeness.

There were those who thought the book should be banned but there were many more who argued that banning of books was immoral and counter productive.

Supposing Satanic Verses had not been banned in India. Well, there would have been no global hullabaloo about the book and no Iranian Fatwa, all of which cumulatively helped boost sales.

And now the Jaipur festival is taking place in the middle of the UP election campaign in which the Muslim vote is again on a premium. Coincidentally, an internal power struggle is on in Deoband itself in which the nephew is challenging the uncle. In this situation either can raise the stakes to embarrass the other by raking up the Rushdie issue.

Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot is, meanwhile, smarting under Congress High command displeasure for tardy action in Gopalgarh where the police shot Muslims in a mosque. Since Rahul Gandhi is busting his guts campaigning for the party in neighbouring UP, one false note on the Rushdie issue can cause the Muslim vote to bolt and for Gehlot to be shown the door. Or, so the partymen, in a state of funk, seem to believe.

Supposing the organizers ignored Deoband and went ahead with Rushdie’s well advertised programme. Would the country’s Muslims take over the nation’s roads in fiery agitating? Of course not.

Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to upgrade relations with Israel (ultimately Narasimha Rao implemented it) has a lesson for the Congress. Muslim leaders, the usual suspects, advised him against upgrading relations. Muslims would be annoyed, they said.

Others argued that there are other negatives in upgrading relations with Israel, but one thing is clear: Israel is not a priority issue for Indian Muslims. Continuous projection of Rushdie like issues, as vital to Muslims, comes in the way of development as their priority requirement. They become a mindless religious herd in popular perception.

The wide acceptance of this perception is partly related to the decline of Urdu and the composite culture on which their identity is built. This cultural identity has in the season of vote banks been replaced by a bland religious identity.  Religious identity is easier to stoke for minority mobilization. Cultural identity derives from Sufi traditions, music, architecture and, above all, poetry which has challenged religious dogma frontally.

Sab tere siwa kafir
Aakhir iska matlab kya?
Sar phira de Insaan ka
Aisa khabt e mazhab kya?
(Every one other than you is an impious kafir? what kind of non-sense is this? Shun religion which is illogical)

There is not a passage in Urdu poetry which gives any quarter to orthodoxy or the clergy but poets make a clear distinction between irreverence and disrespect.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)