Salman Rushdie Joins Indian Writers on 75 Years of Independence

Salman Rushdie Joins Indian Writers on 75 Years of Independence

Salman Rushdie Joins Indian Writers on 75 Years of Independence

Shortly before he was attacked, Rushdie joined with dozens of Indian literary artists to lament the rise of Hindu nationalism and the fragile state of the country’s democracy.

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As India celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule this Monday, August 15, PEN America—one of the nation’s most well-known organizations advocating for global freedom of speech and creative expression—launched India at 75, an anthology of reflections on Independence and Indian democracy from some of the country’s most prominent literary voices. The initiative brought together over 100 writers of Indian origin—including those located both within India and in the diaspora—to share “their ideas of what India was and ought to be, and what it has become” over the past 75 years, in what the anthology’s introduction referred to as a “historic document.”

Among the authors who contributed to the project was Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses prompted a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that forced the author to spend nine years in hiding. On Friday, August 12, Rushdie, who previously served as president of PEN America, was attacked and stabbed on stage while speaking at the Chappaqua Institution in New York. In a statement, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel condemned the attack and praised Rushdie as an “essential voice” who “cannot and will not be silenced.”

The list of authors included in the project—113 in total—is long and diverse, spanning the wide array of castes, languages, ethnicities, religions, and political affiliations that make up the Indian population and its diaspora. But despite the vast diversity of the authors who contributed their reflections to the PEN America initiative, one common thread in particular ran through many of their contributions: a shared sense of concern, dismay, and—in some cases—despair at the state of India’s democracy.

This year’s Independence Day celebrations came at a time when India, often referred to as “the world’s largest democracy,” is experiencing a pronounced deterioration in the strength and stability of its democratic institutions. Since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has experienced a sharp rise in intercommunal tensions between its Hindu majority and Muslim minority, often spilling over into deadly violence against minorities and other marginalized populations. At the same time, civil liberties and democratic values have come under attack from the nationalist government, causing India to fall in multiple indices of democratic stability: in the past year, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, and Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index have all highlighted the decline in the health of India’s democracy. Earlier this year, PEN America’s own Freedom to Write Index found that India was “the only nominally democratic country included in the count of the top 10 jailers of writers and public intellectuals worldwide.”

In his contribution to the India at 75 anthology, Rushdie lamented the decline of India’s democracy and founding ideals, writing that the “dream of fellowship and liberty” that had fueled the independence struggle “is dead, or close to death.” A note inserted before the piece informed readers that the contribution had been written prior to the attack. Rushdie has long been critical of Modi’s government and the rise of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which he referred to in 2014 as a “crypto-fascist movement.”

Like Rushdie, many of the authors who contributed to the PEN America initiative have been outspoken against the rise of Hindutva, including Suchitra Vijayan, whose 2021 book Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India received critical acclaim. Vijayan, who serves as executive director of the Polis Project—a New York City–based research and journalism organization that “sheds light on the rise of authoritarianism especially in democracies and focuses on issues of racial, class and caste injustice, Islamophobia and State oppression around the world”—contributed a poem in which she decried the increased arrests of poets, journalists, and activists under the Modi regime. Similarly, historian Romila Thapar, who is among the preeminent experts on ancient India who has sharply criticized the Hindutva movement’s attempts to rewrite history in service of a nationalist agenda, wrote in India at 75 that “freedom of expression is increasingly disallowed, the rights of citizenship have faded, and the security implicit in being a citizen is denied.”

Other prominent writers featured in the anthology include Anita Desai, whose works have been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize and who received India’s third-highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 2014, Geetanjali Shree, whose novel Tomb of Sand became the first book translated from an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize earlier this year, and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose books have won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Humanities Medal. Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and biographer, also contributed to the project.

Karin Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression At Risk Programs, explained that the anthology was intended “to showcase the diversity of Indian literary voices, and to celebrate the key role that writers in India and the diaspora play in speaking truth to power and contributing to the public sphere” at a time when “we at PEN America and Indian writers in our networks have increasingly been raising the alarm about the growing threats to free expression and the ability of individuals to write freely” in India.

New York City–based author and PEN International board member Salil Tripathi, who also contributed to the project, praised the diverse array of voices included in the collection. “PEN America offered the space to writers to offer their reflections,” he explained, “and the response has been overwhelming—there are poignant voices, angry voices, some expressing hope, some sounding distressed. India is a diverse country with many regional and cultural differences, and no list can be complete, but this is a first step in a long journey to reassert what India is about. It is part of a conversation that ultimately has to be led in India, by Indians.”

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