The Taste With Vir: The 30th anniversary of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the controversy that followed it
This is the 30th anniversary of the controversy that accompanied the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It is an anniversary that has passed largely without comment in India but there has been a flurry of stories in the British press. And a TV documentary about the effect the fatwa had on British Muslims has been well reviewed.
And yet, it is in India that we should be marking the anniversary because the controversy started here. I venture to suggest that had it not been for Indian politicians and Indian protests there would have been no controversy at all.
When Rushdie submitted his manuscript to his publishers there was no real sense that he had written something controversial. The first sign that the book could lead to protests was when the galleys (or perhaps it was the manuscript --- I can’t remember) arrived in Delhi so that Penguin could look at them and publish an Indian edition.
In those days, Penguin India was part owned by ABP (for whom I then worked) and the Consulting Editor was Khushwant Singh. The book was sent to Khushwant who read it and said there was no way it could be published in India. It was deeply offensive to Muslims.
The Editor-in-Chief of ABP at the time was Aveek Sarkar, a true liberal, who told Penguin India’s foreign parent that he was all for publication. Perhaps the book would offend people but that was just too bad. Works of literature are meant to be judged on artistic merit, not by whom they offend.
Because of the ABP connection, I had some idea of what was going on (I was editor of Sunday, an ABP publication). When Shrabani Basu, then Sunday’s London correspondent, went to interview Rushdie, I asked her to throw in a few questions about the impact the book may have on Muslim sentiment and whether he worried that it might cause offence.
Shrabani asked the question and Rushdie answered, in words that would come back to haunt him: “It is a funny view of the world to think that a book can cause riots.”
The Sunday interview appeared in the same week as an extract from the book in India Today. There was, at least as far as I could see, nothing particularly offensive in the extract but, along with the interview and the stories about how Khushwant Singh had advised against publication, the extract was enough to alert the late Syed Shahabuddin, a former IFS officer who seemed like a perfectly sensible chap when you chatted to him but who had an unerring instinct for finding the best way to inflame Muslim political sentiment.
Shahabuddin called for a ban on The Satanic Verses. Other Muslim leaders echoed his call and soon there was a chorus of voices complaining about the so-called insult to Muslim religious feelings.
At this stage, not one of the people calling for the ban had read the book.
When I pressed them on this, they said they did not need to read it. If Khushwant Singh believed it was offensive to Muslims well then, the opinion of this great man of letters was more than enough for them. I guess Khushwant Singh should have issued a statement to the effect that as a liberal he did not believe in the banning of books. But, as far as I can recall, he did no such thing.
The protests snowballed. Violence was threatened. The matter was referred to the Home Minister. (Buta Singh, one of the great intellectuals of our time, if I remember, correctly.) The Home Ministry recommended that the book should not be published because its distribution would lead to violence.
The government of India accepted this recommendation and banned the import of The Satanic Verses. Later, when I interviewed Rajiv Gandhi, who was then Prime Minister, about this decision, he took the line --- common to all Indian politicians through the ages --- that nothing must be allowed to cause riots and endanger communal harmony. (I can see the merit in the argument but I think he was wrong: banning books is a slippery slope.)
Tempers ran so high that no Muslim politicians dared speak up against the ban. My college friend Salman Khurshid who had been one of Oxford’s great liberals also went along with the decision. Prof. Mushirul Hasan said that while he found the novel offensive, he did not believe in banning books and was beaten up by his students.
The protests spread to Pakistan. A mob attacked the British Council building. Ayatollah Khomeini saw the protest on TV and asked what it was about. He was told it was about a book that attacked the Prophet (which The Satanic Verses emphatically did not) and declared, in his magisterial way, that well, in that case, they should put the author to death.
And so the famous fatwa was issued and Salman Rushdie went into hiding, a phase he describes in his memoir Joseph Anton.
Thirty years later, what have we learned from the events surrounding the ban and then the fatwa?
Well, first of all: people - and politicians and clerics in particular - are ignorant. Few, if any, of those who protested had even read the book. They were not offended. They were looking for offence.
This had some comical consequences, The Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, who supported the ban, is supposed to have said that he was not surprised that Salman had written such a book. He knew all about him. He had been corrupted by a Western education. So what if his father was a minister? At this stage, somebody took the old boy aside and explained that while he was quite welcome to rail against Salman Khurshid, the book had been written by another man called Salman, not by Khurshid.
Secondly, the net effect of the agitation was to cement the caricature of the fundamentalist Muslim nutcase. What kind of people got so agitated about a book they had never read (or were likely to read) that murder and mayhem ensued?
All over the world, the agitations, the protests and finally the fatwa, reinforced the image of the Muslim as fanatic. The best you could say was that all Muslims were not fundamentalist lunatics but that the silent majority was content to let the lunatics speak for it.
Three: in India, at least, the BJP exploited the incident to feed the growing Hindu backlash, orchestrated by LK Advani. The ban on the Satanic Verses was proof, BJP leaders said, that the Congress and ‘pseudo-seculars’ were so committed to pandering to Muslims that they would ban any book if it helped shore up the Muslim vote bank.
It cannot be an accident that it was during this period that the BJP went from two seats in the Lok Sabha to becoming a major force, nationally.
Four: The government’s capitulation to the likes of Shahabuddin made it difficult for secular liberals to argue for freedom of expression. The Hindus who said that Muslims should not get so agitated about perceived insults to the Prophet got as agitated about MF Hussain’s paintings of Hindu goddesses.
They had no real commitment to artistic expression. They were not arguing for freedom. They were arguing against Muslims. But once secularists had gone along with the Satanic Verses ban they could easily be accused of double standards when they objected to Hindu protests.
Five: As some British Muslim writers have pointed out, the fatwa was not really condemned by many British Muslims. Many young Muslims actually supported it.
There have been many explanations offered for this phenomenon. But the support for the fatwa was the first sign that young Muslims in the West were so alienated or so angered by racism that they would support the worst kind of primitive Islamism even if it involved murder.
Years later some of these young Muslims bombed London and went off to join ISIS. All of us ignored the warning signs that accompanied the support for the fatwa.
Six: The Hindu community does not have the leaders it deserves. It has guys like Yogi Adityanath and his ilk who make a mockery of a great religion like Hinduism. But long before that happened, the Muslim community had leaders who were as bad. And not only were liberal Muslims hesitant to speak out against them, liberal Hindus also pandered to them believing that we were being secular.
Seven: And finally, freedom of expression cannot be an absolute value. But it certainly cannot be treated with the kind of cavalier disregard with which Indians have looked at it over the decades. It is liberals who accepted the position that if a work of art or creative expression offends anyone, it should be banned. We did this to avoid riots or violence and followed the path of least resistance.
But in doing so, we weakened the very basis of our liberal society. The Karni Senas and all the other lunatic fringe groups that threaten artists, film-makers and media today grew out of our willingness to suspend our belief in free expression at the slightest provocation. Indian liberals are nearly as much to blame as the fascists who hold sway today.
On the 30th anniversary of the Satanic Verses ban, we should look back. We should examine our mistakes.
And we should learn from them.
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