Twenty-three years have passed since Salman Rushdie’s fiction novel, "The Satanic Verses", was banned by the Indian government, and still the Muslims of India can't get past their rage against Rushdie.
The latest saga of Indian Muslims’ fanatic anger at Rushdie was played out over the past week (17-24 January, 2012) over Rushdie’s scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where he was to speak in three separate events. It drama started when Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, vice-chancellor of the Darul Uloom Deoband seminary, told the government to block Rushdie's visit, because he "had annoyed the religious sentiments of Muslims in the past." If not, threatened Nomani, “the Darul Uloom Deoband will take appropriate action."
The Indian government, according to Gillian Slovo, president of English PEN, "had earlier said it would not stop Rushdie from attending the festival and it should honour its commitment to freedom of expression."
As the organizers still insisted that Rushdie would still attend the event and Rushdie himself sent out a Twitter message that he doesn’t “need a visa” for coming to India, India’s security officials allegedly discovered intelligence that hitmen were sent by Muslim-dominated Mumbai underworld dons to assassinate Rushdie, should he turn up to attend the event. This prompted the provincial Rajasthan government to ask the central government to block Rushdie’s India visit, which was complied with.
After Rushdie’s visit was canceled, arrangements were made for him to address a session on the final day via video link from America. That was also too much for the Indian Muslims to tolerate as they threatened violence on the streets of Jaipur should the video conference be held as planned. Amidst this new threat, Rushdie’s addressing the literary fest via video link was also canceled. In the face of this excessive display of Muslim fanaticism and terror threats, there have predictably been much outpouring of resentment and criticism of Muslim bigotry in the media.
There are a number reasons for this outpouring of condemnation of India’s Muslims.
- Not only that the ban on Rushdie’s was imposed 23 years ago, this renewed rage of Indian Muslims against Rushdie also comes some 14 years after even the Iranian government withdrew its bounty on Rushdie’s head in 1998, technically withdrawing the Fawta, calling for killing him.
- While the Rajiv Gandhi government of India was the second country after Singapore to ban Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, according to Rushdie, the ban simply applied to the book’s importation to India (custom ban) – meaning possessing and reading the book is not a criminal offence. Moreover, there is no ban on Rushdie’s visiting or even living in India. And indeed, Rushdie has been visiting India regularly over past years, including his appearance in the 2007 edition of the same Literary Festival.
- On his scheduled appearance in the Lit-Fest, Rushdie was not necessarily going to read from “The Satanic Verses”. The Indian Muslims could, at best, protest his reading from “The Satanic Verses”, not oppose his visit to India and threaten him with death and other forms of violence. This is especially unacceptable when India is Rushdie’s birth-place.
- Indian Muslims have been appreciated as the most moderate and tolerant in the world.
- When this belated mortal anger against Rushdie amongst Indian Muslims was raging greater than ever, “The Satanic Verses” is said to have been published in Turkey, Egypt and Libya in recent times.
- Under such circumstances, the strong outpouring of scorn against the Muslim fanaticism and bigotry in the Indian media is easily understandable. It is unbelievable that allegedly the world’s most moderate Muslim community, despite being a minority, terrorizes the government of the world’s biggest secular democracy in such manner over “The Satanic Verses” issue.
India’s Insidious Blasphemy Law
Freedom-loving citizens of India, especially many writers and artists, have become increasingly frustrated in recent decades as speeches and works of art and literature have come under increasing censorship, particularly under the pretext of hurt religious sentiment. This was unfurled in 1988 by the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government by banning of Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in order not to hurt the religious sentiments of India’s Muslims – thanks to a British-era law Blasphemy Law in section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The law says:
Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.
The law itself was instituted in 1927 by the colonial British Raj in the aftermath of killing of publisher Raj Paul for publishing the book entitled, “Rangeela Rasul” (Colorful Prophet), which depicted the Prophet Muhammad in his true color. When the British rulers arrested killer Ilm ud-din, it aroused strong anger and protest amongst Muslims all over India. Even elite Muslims like Jinnah and Allama Iqbal came to defend the killer and he was anointed as a “Shaheed” (martyr) after the British duly punished him with death by hanging. Nonetheless, the British Raj also instituted this law in its Penal Code to avoid angering Muslims in the future.
After India’s independence from the British rule inj 1947, the law was retained but was never applied until 1982. In the 1980s, two books were banned under the same law – 1) Ram Swarup’s “Understanding Islam through Hadis” (1982), 2) Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and 3) Richard Eaton’s “Sufi’s of Bijapur” in 1989. These were followed by the banning of Taslima Nasrin’s “Lajja” (1993) in some states and of R. V. Bhasin’s “Islam – A Concept of Political World Invasion” in 2007. All these books were banned under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code exclusively for safeguarding the religious sentiments of Muslims.
Seeing Muslims, other religious communities – Hindus, Sikhs and Christians – have started making use of the same law to ban literary and art works, offensive to their own religious sentiments. For example, American author James Jane’s “Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India” was banned in Maharashtra following Hindu zealots of Sambhaji Brigade attacked Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (January 2004), where Laine had done research. However, the ban was overturned by the Mumbai High Court in 2007, and appeal against the ruling was upheld by Indian Supreme Court in July 2010. Laine’s translation of the “Sivabharata”, entitled The Epic of Shivaji, was also banned after the same attack and it still remains banned.
“Bhavsagar Granth” – a book by a Sikh sect – was banned by the state government of Punjab after clashes between mainstream Sikhs and members of the sect.
And the Catholics in India felt their religious sentiment hurt by Heavy Metal band Slayer's 2006 album “Christ Illusion” and launched a protest against it, leading to its ban in India.
Apart from the ban on books and music, Hindu fanatics threatened renowned artist MF Hussein with death for nude depiction of a Hindu Goddess. This prompted him to leave India. Muslims have made repeated attempts to attack Taslima Nasrin.
In sum, for authors and artists, expressing themselves freely is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s India. India is a distinguished civilization for her tolerance for differing opinions and religious beliefs. But the increasing restriction on works of literature and art, and threat of violence against authors and artists by religious zealots of different religious groups are undermining that proud tradition of the Indian Civilization. While it is the increasing intolerance and religious fanaticism that is responsible for the sad development in India, the archaic Blasphemy Law has undoubtedly emboldened fanatics to demand ban on anything they feel hurt their religious feelings and to indulge in violence against writers and artists.
Britain, which originally instituted the law, has repealed it in 2008, and India should follow suit, which will undoubtedly discourage religious fanatics go on the offensive, which is becoming a recurring phenomenon in India.
When “The Satanic Verses” was banned in India 1988, Salman Rushdie wrote, asking PM Rajiv Gandhi, what kind of India he wanted to have: a free liberal democratic one or an intolerant one? And the state of affairs as it stands now, Rushdie’s worst fear seems to have come to grip India. If India is to emerge as a great progressive nation, upholding its glorious and proud historical tradition of tolerance and liberty, the first thing she must do is to repeal its archaic Blasphemy Law, as the British have done in 2008.
Readers are encouraged to sign the following petition urging the Indian government to withdraw ban on “The Satanic Verses”: Prime Minister, India: Reconsider the ban on Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses'