Even the high-profile presence of Oprah Winfrey at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday has not been enough to bury the controversy over writer Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, his 1988 novel that is banned in India, which has overshadowed this year’s festival.
In the latest twist to the clash of ideas over fundamental questions of freedom of speech, a slice of authors and writers at the Lit Fest on Sunday launched a campaign demanding that the ban on The Satanic Verses be lifted immediately. The ‘Unban the Verses’ petition was initiated by writer Nilanjana Roy.
The book was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988 after Muslim groups in India objected to it on the grounds that it was “blasphemous” and hurt the sentiments of Muslims.
Rushdie was to have attended this year’s Jaipur LitFest, but after Muslim groups objective to his presence – and some of them even threatened violence – the writer was force to cancel his plans to come to India. Reports that a criminal gang had assigned a ‘hit job’ on Rushdie, cited as the proximate reason for his cancelling his travel plans, have since been proved to have been cooked up by the Rajasthan police.
Four authors who had on Saturday read passages from The Satanic Verses – to express solidarity with Rushdie and to protest the cramping of creative freedom – left Jaipur on legal advice fearing arrest for reading from a proscribed work of literature. (One of the four authors, Hari Kunzru, later explained why he did what he did, and the circumstances in which he left India in a rush. Ruchir Joshi, who too read passages from the book at the LitFest, points out that in fact The Satanic Verse isn’t actually “banned” in India; only the import of the book has been blocked. )
On Sunday, a few other authors and writers circulated a petition demanding that the ban on The Satanic Verses be lifted since it had “not incited violence anywhere.” If anything, others had used the novel as a prop to incite violence to suit their political ends.
“Within India, in the 23 years since the ban, we have witnessed an erosion of respect for freedom of expression, as artists like MF Husain, Chandramuhun Srimantula, Jatin Das, and Balbir Krishan have been intimidated, and works of writers like Rohinton Mistry and AK Ramanujan have been withdrawn because of threats by groups claiming to be offended,” the petition said.
India is one of the few countries in the world where the ban on The Satanic Verses stands, placing it alongside Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Liberia and Papua New Guinea, among others, the petition said.
“We submit with respect that there is a democratic need to review and re-examine the circumstances that led to the original ban of the Verses in 1988, which have changed greatly over time,” the petition said.
Columnist Ashok Malik recalls the historical context in which the ban on The Satanic Verses was imposed and reasons that that decision accounted for the Hindu backlash of the early 1990s and took a heavy toll on civil liberties and artistic freedom in India. “Till Satanic Verses, book bans in India did take place but were relatively few. After October 1988 (when Rajiv Gandhi banned the book), stated and unstated bans became an epidemic.”
In his estimation, this time too, after the ham-handed manner in which the Central and the Rajasthan governments handled the Rushdie episode, there will inevitably be a “counter-mobilisation and a backlash”‘ for which the Congress must be prepared in the medium term. This could, he reckons, be “a broader Hindu backlash, a localised caste-based backlash or an urban middle-classes backlash.
With inputs from agencies