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 defense 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.
'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.