Updated: December 1, 2015 8:00:39 am
Twenty-seven years after the event, P Chidambaram, former cabinet minister of the Congress party, has admitted that the ban imposed on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses by the government of Rajiv Gandhi was ill-conceived. Indeed, it must number among the least palatable actions of that government but since it only limited access to one book, and since the Internet now allows the embargo to be run very easily by those who want to read it, it seems to have faded from public memory.
In the Rajiv Gadhi era, the politically sanctioned 1984 violence against Sikhs in Delhi set a precedent whose shadow now falls across the country. Bofors set the keynote for gigantic scams to come. The Shah Bano case was a shameful infringement of the legislature on the turf of the judiciary. In comparison, the banning of a book seems trivial, but it was the first shot across the bows in a global war on culture which continues to intensify.
The timeline of the Satanic Verses controversy shows India in a rather poor light. The government banned imports of the novel on October 5, 1988, on the plea of Syed Shahabuddin. It was the first ban which the book faced, two weeks before Muslims in Britain petitioned their government for curbs. Downing Street rejected the idea, preferring to commit itself to a long-drawn protection programme which became controversial because it was publicly funded.
A month and a half after India banned The Satanic Verses, a domino effect was seen in countries across half the world, from South Africa to Indonesia. The climate of opinion had gathered momentum to the extent that a global fatwa could be heeded, and Ayatollah Khomeini was at hand in February 1989 to issue one.
Since that time, the politics of hurts sentiments has progressively divided the world into nations, cultures and groups which support free speech, and those which are quick to take offence. In the former, where India claims its place, the ban is an anachronism. And yet, a series of governments of diverse political persuasions have been happy to keep it in force.
Chidambaram has spoken his mind on The Satanic Verses when his party is in the opposition. His statement may have been inconvenient when it was in power, because Indian bans tend to be durable. And now, in addition to them, there are unofficial, unstated, fuzzy bans like the circumstances which led the Tamil author Perumal Murugan to announce his own death as a writer. The illiberal trend which started with the government’s ban on The Satanic Verses and the fatwa which followed has created a global culture of complaint which justifies violent responses to imagined cultural slights.
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