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When Voices Get Silenced... and Heard

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Recently, the lightning-rod writer Salman Rushdie was forced to cancel a personal appearance and then a video-link interview at the Jaipur Literary Festival -- the largest literary festival in India.

There had been threats against Rushdie by some Muslim groups, and the organizers of the festival said that protestors at the venue and elsewhere in the city could trigger violence. Meanwhile the government decision to prevent Rushdie from speaking -- even by video! -- sparked a media maelstrom, which soon took over the media coverage of the entire festival. Almost instantly, the Rushdie censorship struggle made headlines around the world.

But for those of us who were actually at the festival, a very different vibe prevailed. Rushdie was not the focus -- and the ideal of free speech took a very different, and much more promising, form.

Yes, many attendees came just to hear Oprah. And others came to see and be seen -- it was the hottest event around. (For a lit fest to be "hot" is an amazing thing; and in this sense the Rushdie controversy drove the festival's temperature higher.)

But wandering onto the grounds of the Jaipur Literary Festival, you might also have stumbled onto a panel discussion that took free speech as a chance to reveal abuses of power by the government, and the struggle for civil rights.

One panel at the festival was a strong indictment of the Indian government and its treatment of Muslims in Kashmir.

Called "Prison Diaries,'' the panel gathered three journalists and activists who had written about their detention by Indian "security forces" in Kashmir: Iftikhar Gilani, Anjum Zamarud Habib, and Sahil Maqbool.

Gilani was a well-known journalist who was detained, tortured in prison for eight months under the "Official Secrets Act," Habib spent five years of "rigorous imprisonment" in Tihar Jail in New Delhi, and Maqbool was detained and tortured in Kashmir accused of being a spy for Pakistan.

All three have written about their experiences, one in Urdu and two in English. Maqbool's book Shabistan-e-wajood is available only in Urdu while Habib's Prisoner No. 100: An account of my days and nights in an Indian Prison, and Gilani's My Days in Prison are published in English.

Gilani and Maqbool were journalists, and Habib was the founder of an organization working for the welfare of women. Gilani and Maqbool were acquitted of the charges and released because of the activism of journalists who protested their imprisonment. All three spoke of the extraordinary horrors of their experiences, and Gilani and Maqbool detail how they were tortured, all of which makes for chilling reading about the practices of the state in India.

Habib does not describe the torture, saying that she prefers not to speak publicly of these details -- a silence that effectively forces one to imagine all kinds of horrors.

Their stories are not just about the Indian state, its extraordinary powers of detention of Kashmiri Muslims, or the actions of security forces which imprison on the basis of planted evidence. They also spoke of their betrayal by a careless media that published the government's accounts and by friends who turned against them once they were in prison.

They related how news media concocted stories about them, their links to so-called 'terrorist organizations" and repeated, without any investigation, the government's information. Habib said that she came to believe that that the media was against her -- and any quick Google search of her case shows that newspaper coverage does not question the government's case against her.

Moreover, as Kashmiri Muslims, they did not have any rights under the anti-terrorist, Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA, 2002) if accused of belonging to or assisting a "terrorist organization."

The panel was also remarkable for its indictment of the common Indian public which all three said were biased against Muslims and which saw them not as fellow citizens, but as terrorists. They related how most Indians believed the charges against them, and few were sympathetic to their plight. Habib argued that there was little outcry in the general public about their detention because there is a bias in the general Indian public against anyone who was from Kashmir and a Muslim - a bias that is visible in the rates of poverty among Muslims in India. As Mushirul Hasan, the eminent historian and director of the National Archives Of India, pointed out in another panel, the Indian government has not done much to improve the lives of its Muslim citizens.

During a question-and-answers session, a young woman in the said she had not been aware of what was being done to Muslim detainees and was shocked by what she heard. "I did not know that this was happening in India," she said. The comment simply underscored the panelists' point about the general public's indifference. Detentions of Kashmiri Muslims have been pervasive over the last decade and the torture of prisoners in Indian jails (even those outside of Kashmir or of poor prisoners) is endemic and well known.

Yet her comment also showed how important it was to have this panel as well as some of the other panels that spoke of issues of dissent and democracy.

The festival included serious conversations about problems in India, discrimination against Dalits (former Untouchables -the lowest caste), geopolitics and political poetry. And there were panels about authors not so controversial in the Indian context (Jamaica Kincaid, Ben Okri) as well as much that was clearly directed at a non-literary crowd of both tourists (loads of European and U.S. visitors), gawkers and young people who were checking each other out.

All of these discussions suggest that free speech is alive and well in India.

Rushdie may be the one of the biggest media draws -- for the festival and beyond, in both India and the West. He has certainly become a symbol of free speech for the West. But he is not as relevant for what is going on in India today with regard to the questions of rights and political freedoms.

His "absent presence" brought attention to the festival and to an inept government and organizers who did not realize what might get stirred up in the week before elections.

That a book can be banned when it is available to be downloaded from the web is ludicrous (though the government is trying to control Internet access). Likewise, preventing Rushdie from participating in a video-link when he is all over the TV news underscores how attempts to censure can do just the reverse.

But a panel such as "Prison Diaries" was a far more serious indictment of the Indian government's treatment of its citizens and the abuses of power by security forces.

Of course, Rushdie should have been allowed to speak. But in a democracy, free speech is always a struggle. And in these days of media saturation, its not just free speech that is important, but whose voice gets heard.