Monday, 14 December 2015

Why India banned the 'Satanic Verses'.

Inder Malhotra has an article in the Express today about how and why India banned Salman Rushdie's controversial novel 'Satanic Verses'.

'Around the time Rushdie’s book was published, Rajiv Gandhi was being inundated with strong representations from Muslim leaders of all parties, including the Congress, protesting against horrendous anti-Muslim riots in Meerut, Hashimpura and adjoining areas in UP. During these, not only were the killings heavy but also some victims were blinded. The highly provocative movement for the construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya had aggravated the situation. It was in this grave atmosphere that a note, informing him that since Satanic Verses was not published in India, several applications for the import of Rushdie’s book also landed on the prime minister’s desk. He called in his information adviser, G. Parthasarathy, who advised that the matter should be referred to the Union home ministry that was responsible for what is officially always called “law and order” despite Nehru’s repeated suggestion that the phrase “peace and tranquility” would be better.

'A couple of days later the PM heard on Doordarshan that the import of Satanic Verses had been banned. Parthasarathy’s RAX phone rang and he found that the call was from the PM asking him whether he had seen the news on Doordarshan, and if so, how the ban order was announced. The answer was available immediately. C.G. Somiah, then a highly-spoken-of home secretary, explained that under the government’s rules of business, it was his duty to deal with every major problem concerning law and order. On reading Rushdie’s book in its entirety, he added, he came to the conclusion that to allow it to be circulated in India in the existing law and order situation would be not only wrong but also dangerous. The home ministry issued the necessary orders. Rajiv evidently thought that this was the end of the matter.'

There are two points which can be made in this connection.

1) The political background was irrelevant. Rushdie's book wasn't connected to either anti-Muslim atrocities in U.P nor had anything to do with Ayodhya. The fact is a prominent opposition M.P, former diplomat, Syed Shahabudin had written an open letter calling for the book's import to be banned. By itself, this meant that no application for its import could be granted without ascertaining if prima facie it was noxious under the relevant act and, moreover, if it posed a threat to internal security.

2) The decision to ban or allow the import of a book is not made at the level of the Prime Minister. If the Home Ministry receives representations opposing the import of a book, it makes a decision based on certain objective criteria. These can be challenged in a court of law. However, it would still be open to anyone to approach the Court to ban the book and order copies destroyed on some other basis- in this case Hate Speech Law Section 295(A)- which was brought in after the scandal caused by the publication of 'Rangila Rasul', a book which was reminiscent of the Satanic Verses because of the inclusion of salacious material in connection with episodes in the life of the Prophet of Islam. Indeed, that's why Khushwant Singh, who trained as a lawyer, advised Penguin India not to publish the book.

This raises the question of Rushdie's open letter to Rajiv Gandhi- which the author now admits was 'cheeky' and 'arrogant, not to say hilariously ignorant- Rushdie called Khurshid Alam Khan an extremist and a fundamentalist!- and the dilemma faced by a democratic country under the rule of law when attacked by so-called 'public intellectuals' who affect not to know the Law and who pretend that Politicians are all powerful.

Rushdie wrote as follows to Rajiv Gandhi- 'A further official statement was brought to my notice. This explained that ''The Satanic Verses'' had been banned as a pre-emptive measure. Certain passages had been identified as susceptible to distortion and misuse, presumably by unscrupulous religious fanatics and such. The banning order had been issued to prevent this misuse. Apparently, my book is not deemed blasphemous or objectionable in itself, but is being proscribed for, so to speak, its own good!

This really is astounding. It is as though, having identified an innocent person as a likely target for assault by muggers or rapists, you were to put that person in jail for protection. This is no way, Mr. Gandhi, for a free society to behave.

The Indian Govt had been kind to Rushdie. Rather than saying baldly that the book contravened Hate Speech Law Section 295 (A) and that its import had been banned in consequence, the bureaucrats sought to give Rushdie a fig leaf.  The fact is, quite soon after, the British Police had to take Rushdie into hiding for his own protection. By then, of course, even Rushdie could see that such a measure was necessary to preserve his life. What is alarming is that a man born in India and who had lived in Pakistan could not understand that his book provided material for Islamophobes as well as serving as a pretext for mob violence by Muslim activists. Rushdie could scarcely have been unaware that mobs in Pakistan had burned down the British Council Library because of a tasteless joke by Auberon Waugh about the birth of the future Messiah and the peculiar shape of the trousers men wore in the region. In the twenty succeeding years, Political Islam had gained rather than retreated. Yet Rushdie wrote a scabrous book and expected to be taken seriously as a Public Intellectual- one, moreover, as he reminded us in a pompous TV interview he gave at that time, who had studied Islamic History in Cambridge.

Rushdie does offer a possible legal defence relevant to a prosecution under Section 295. Here it is-
'The section of the book in question (and let's remember that the book isn't actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay) deals with a prophet - who is not called Mohammed - living in a highly fantastical city made of sand (it dissolves when water falls upon it).

'He is surrounded by fictional followers, one of whom happens to bear my own first name. Moreover, this entire sequence happens in a dream, the fictional dream of a fictional character, an Indian movie star, and one who is losing his mind, at that. How much further from history could one get?

'In this dream sequence I have tried to offer my view of the phenomenon of revelation and the birth of a great world religion; my view is that of a secular man for whom Islamic culture has been of central importance all his life.'
This defence could work if the reader could believe that the crazy movie star could himself have had the hallucination narrated. An American or German might think, 'okay, maybe Indian movie stars from humble backgrounds grew up listening to stories about their Religion similar to what is depicted in the book. Indian Judges, on the other hand, have direct access to the vernacular traditions re. the Prophet. Furthermore, the prosecution could call actual Muslim film stars from humble backgrounds and establish that the hallucinations Rushdie fathers on his protagonist are not such as might arise as a result of mental illness. Rather, they are meant to impress the reader as a type of Revelation. 
Rushdie refers to Hazrat Salman Farsi- a special hero to Ajamis (non Arabs). Why on earth does he conflate this impeccable character with the reviled Ibn Sarh who was not Ajami? Would Rushdie have uttered a similar slur on Hazrat Bilal (who was Black)?
The problem here, from the legal point of view, is that a lot of Rushdie's writing is of a low grade 'scenes a fair' type, which, though a defense against the charge of plagiarism, is no good at all for a plea basing itself on aesthetic value or scholarly integrity.

Rushdie said- 'When Syed Shahabuddin and his fellow self-appointed guardians of Muslim sensibilities say that ''no civilized society'' should permit the publication of a book like mine, they have got things backwards. The question raised by the book's banning is precisely whether India, by behaving in this fashion, can any more lay claim to the title of a civilized society.'
A Civilized Society is one under the Rule of Law. In India, Democratically elected Legislatures had approved or extended Laws against Hate Speech.
Banning Rushdie's book was the Civilized thing to do for the Indian bureaucrat concerned because it was enjoined by a Democratically enacted Law and was clearly in the Public Interest.  Protesting against an unjust law or seeking to redefine the Public Interest is equally, if not more so, incumbent on members of Civil Society. However, there are civilized ways of enforcing or protesting Laws. Indian bureaucrats did their duty in banning a book but did so in a Civilized manner such that the least possible damage was done to the author's reputation.  Rushdie, by contrast, though adopting an Olympian tone, protested the ban in the least civilized manner possible- viz. by telling stupid lies and putting forward obviously fallacious arguments. The proper way to change the Law is to bring a test case on a genuinely worthwhile piece of literature. Sadly, Rushdie is yet to produce anything that meets that description. 


Anonymous said...

"Banning Rushdie's book was the Civilized thing to do for the Indian bureaucrat concerned because it was enjoined by a Democratically enacted Law and was clearly in the Public Interest."

The Satanic Verses ban is not justifiable even under this ridiculous "Hate speech" law. There is nothing in the book that can be called hate speech. Unpleasant? Yes. Obscene? Perhaps. Disrespectful? Definitely. But no "hate speech".

windwheel said...

There is definitely something to be said for your view. The pity of it is that the Courts were not approached. I recall, a friend of mine (a Muslim, I might add) was thinking of bringing a P.I.L case on the issue. There was a precedent- viz the famous Periyar idol smashing case- where the High Court held that the action of an avowed atheist can't hurt a religious person's feelings. However, at the time, Rushdie affirmed his Islamic faith. The problem was that he had maligned Salman Farsi which is objectionable to some batini sects. Thus the Supreme Court's ruling in the Khalil Ahmad case- where a Shiah maligned Mu'awiya, whom the Sunnis accept as a Caliph- gained salience. The problem here is that when a person who affirms belief in a particular creed or sect, singles out for contumely a person considered venerable by another group, then it is difficult to show no malice was intended.
Rushdie himself put forward a different defence- viz. the objectionable portions were the dream of a lunatic. However, for this defence to hold, expert witnesses would need to testify that there was either an artistic convention or some naturalistic basis for the depiction. In this case, no such expert witnesses could exist because Rushdie had ascribed visions proper to a deracinated Cambridge educated intellectual to some one of a wholly different social and educational background. Furthermore, since the Ayatollah Khomeni (weirdly in conjunction with the Shah's twin sister) was depicted in a harsh manner, it would be difficult for the Court to see the book as other than deliberately insulting to Shias.

At present, since Rushdie has proclaimed his atheism- i.e. as in the Periyar case- the argument can be made that no religious person's sentiments can be hurt by the actions of someone who considers all religions to be foolish or mischievous- it may be that a test case would succeed. Of course, the Govt. may rush in legislation to ban it, but such legislation would itself come under the scrutiny of the Judiciary and may be struck down.

windwheel said...

As a Hindu, of a certain age, I must tell you plainly that I consider 'Satanic Verses' to be hate speech in the Indian context. Why? I think reading it would have the effect, on a young Hindu, of inducing feelings of rage and fear against Muslims more particularly because, for ordinary Hindus, the historical facts are not common knowledge.
Furthermore, from the Religious point of view, there is a danger to Hinduism itself because numerous Sadhus and Mahatmas- or Saints like Shirdi's Sai Baba- venerated by us have endorsed a wholly different view of the Satanic Verses episode. Our canonical interpretation- the same as that of our Muslim brothers- is that the episode reveals the humanity and humility of the Prophet- his 'vatsalya' or maternal care towards the 'ummah' which he conceived of as Universal. This is important because our own Gurus and Acharyas can be misinterpreted as seeking to sow division rather than harmony- 'fitna' is the Arabic word which has entered our North Indian languages to describe this.
Furthermore, depiction of wanton behaviour or drunkenness without a balancing account of the resulting moral degradation endangers the ethos of our own young people. Hindus and Sikhs agreed that 'Rangila Rasool' violated basic social norms. A young Hindu might say 'well, if Prophet Muhammad achieved greatness despite the peccadillos attributed to him in this book, why should I not waste my parent's hard earned money on visits to the brothel?'

Of course, the younger generation in India- to which you, perhaps, belong is far more educated and cosmopolitan than was the case three decades ago and so, it may be, that it is indeed in the public interest to lift the ban. However, the way to do it is by assembling expert testimony and bringing a test case in the Court. Civill Society advances in Civilisation only with the crutch of the Law. My point was that bureaucrats can't decide things according to their whim or fancy, but must act in accordance with the Law and the Govts. own rules and regulations.
No doubt, this approach leads to some glaring injustices or absurdities but 'substantive due process' Judicial review has proven its utility in advancing progressive causes in a manner superior even to Legislation because fundamental principles are better highlighted and the suspicion of 'log rolling' political expediency is ab ovo defeated.
By contrast, paranoid ranting- e.g. Rushdie's histrionic claim that his book was banned because of 'vote bank' politics- achieves nothing but that 'fitna' which polarises and divides Civil Society and deadlocks the Polity in envenomed stasis.

Iniyavel Sugumar said...


I want to wish a Merry Christmas, a joyful Arudra Dharisanam (on Saturday), and a very Happy and Peaceful New Year to you.

As of late, I've been extremely tight with life, and so post August, I had no time to update my blog. I will update my blog around early January.

Sir, I have a video that could help you with your mental problems. Kindly listen to this video for an hour everyday in the morning at a comfortable volume.

The above video uses 528 Hz (Solfeggio frequency). Incidentally, this same frequency was used to cure the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico by British Petroleum in 2010.

I request you to worship god after waking up and listening to this for an hour everyday when you get the time for it. Get well soon.


Iniyavel Sugumar.

Anonymous said...

windwheel said...

Many thanks! God bless you and yours and protect and prosper you in this new year. Look forward to your post.