Normally, it is the relentless war of words between the ruling BJP and the Congress, which remains the main Opposition party despite its tally in the Lok Sabha having plummeted from over 410 in 1984 to a mere 44 last year, that requires the recollection of some distant event highly important in its time but now faded in people’s memory.
But this time around the same situation has arisen not from the remarks of one of the votaries of hard Hindutva but from those of a liberal and moderate Congress leader, former finance minister P. Chidambaram. At a conference more academic than political, in reply to a question, he said to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was “wrong”, and that if the question were put to him 20 years ago his answer would have been the same. This is unusual candour, so rare, alas, in Indian polity these days.
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.
He soon learnt that it was the beginning of a big row.
After the announcement of the ban, Rajiv again got many letters on the subject. These were a mixed bag. If some were totally opposed to banning books, some others endorsed the ban and said it was necessary and timely. There was one rather special communication: A personal email from Salman Rushdie to Rajiv Gandhi. To this no reply was sent nor was it acknowledged. It was simply “filed”, according to the government’s established procedure. Rushdie considered this as Rajiv adding insult to injury. So he addressed a press conference in London at which he used his command on the language to condemning India and Rajiv Gandhi in blazing terms. BBC World Service, especially its Persian unit, gave the event elaborate coverage. Almost instantly, the supreme leader of Iran, Imam Khomeini, issued a fatwa that Rushdie deserved death and whoever would kill him would get a generous reward. By now Rushdie and his book had become a major international issue. Ironically, two groups though totally opposed to each other united to blame India: The advocates of freedom of expression for the ban on Rushdie’s book, and Islamic extremists for not condemning the contents of Satanic Verses as blasphemous.
Rajiv was flying across UP concerned over what had happened, with the state chief minister Vir Bahadur Singh in tow, when the foreign office conveyed to him, through his information adviser (IA), also on board, that writings in the Saudi press (on the anti-Muslim riots) had become virulent. After listening to the message, he told the IA to go and repeat it to the chief minister. Vir Bahadur Singh’s reply, crude and casual, was repeated to the PM verbatim. He said nothing but within months the chief minister was sacked.
On a personal note, I must report that in February 1989, I was invited by Canada’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute to deliver six lectures at various universities on Nehru during the year-long celebration of his birth centenary. At every place there were as many questions about Rushdie and his book as about “Panditji”. My answer everywhere was that I was opposed to book banning but there were compulsions for India to proscribe Satanic Verses. However, I strongly regretted Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie. At London, Ontario, however, as soon as I repeated this, a burly and articulate Canadian Sikh rose and declared: “Sir, if anyone writes or says anything insulting about my religious gurus or my Holy Book I would go and slaughter him, and would not accept a penny as a reward”.