At a time when any issue touched off noisy, partisan rancour, the attack on writer Salman Rushdie has seen a rare consensus in the political establishment: an evasive silence.
Barring a few voices, the political class has largely stayed away from condemning the grievous assault.
Addressing a press conference in Bengaluru Saturday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, when asked about the attack, said: “I also read about that…I think, obviously that is something which the whole world has noted and any attack like this obviously the entire world has reacted to it.”
Among the few who condemned the assault include CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor; his party colleague and Congress media chief Pawan Khera; and Shiv Sena’s Priyanka Chaturvedi.
This isn’t surprising given the record of political discourse on this issue.
Since the Rajiv Gandhi government banned The Satanic Verses in 1988 — the first country to do so — Parliamentary proceedings show that the ban has been cited more to score political points than make a case for the protection of freedom of speech.
Indeed, Rushdie himself, in a 1990 essay, wrote that the “the demand for the book’s banning was a power play to demonstrate the strength of the Muslim vote, on which Congress has traditionally relied and which it could ill afford to lose.”
Denying this to The Indian Express, Natwar Singh, who was Minister of State for External Affairs in the Rajiv government, claimed Saturday the ban was in view of the “law and order situation” and had nothing to with “appeasing” one community.
However, even the BJP, whose government headed by A B Vajpayee had given Rushdie a visa to travel to India for the first time over a decade after the ban, avoided taking a clear-cut stand on reversing the ban.
The immediate aftermath of the ban saw some Congress members congratulating the Government. In March 1989, Congress MP, Zainul Basher, thanked the then Prime Minister and the Finance Minister in Lok Sabha for taking the lead in banning the book.
“…Indonesia and Bangladesh have not yet banned this book but we were on the lead to ban this book in our country. Words fall short to appreciate this gesture of the Indian Government,” he had said.
For the BJP, the ban was an example of what it called the Congress government’s “double standards.”
On August 17, 1993, BJP member B L Sharma (Prem) flagged a poster put up by NGO Sahmat at an exhibition in Ayodhya. Vajpayee slammed the then P V Narasimha Rao government for allowing such a poster. Then L K Advani then took over.
“…this issue of secularism…one of the things that are really polluting it, disturbing it, is the approach of double standards. You cannot have double standards about this poster and a different standard about Salman Rushdie’s book. After all, Salman Rushdie’s book hurts the sentiments of some sections. I can say that I differ with it but this Government went to the extent of banning it without even reading it,” Advani said.
“It is the only democratic country in the world, mind you, in which this book was banned. I disapprove of the book, but at the same time you have one standard for that and another standard for Sahmat and that Sahmat which publishes this objectionable poster about which a reference has been made, is given the Government grant. On the one hand the Government gives them grants and on the other it gives them protection. This double standard will not be allowed. There is resentment among the people against it,” he had said.
In 1999, the issue resurfaced in the context of granting a visa to Rushdie.
In Lok Sabha on February 24,1999, E Ahamed, the Muslim League MP, said he wanted to express the deep sense of resentment of the Muslim community of India on the Government’s decision to grant a visa to Rushdie. “He has not regretted (it) so far, and it has wounded the sentiments of Muslims all over the country and all over the world….Such a man should not be welcomed in the soil of this country,” he said.
Samajwadi Party’s Mohan Singh saw a “sinister” purpose behind the move. “The Government is trying to create communal riots in the country so as to gain political advantage. I oppose this intention of the Government and appeal to the Government…that the reason on which Rushdie was issued visa is totally wrong.”
He said that Rushdie had not only made a comment on the Prophet but also on Hindu gods and goddesses. “Therefore, it is not only a question of the Muslim society but Rushdie’s ideology about Hindu society also affects the sentiments of Hindu society. Therefore, efforts are being made by the Government of India to thrust India into the fire of communal riots by inviting such a person as a guest.”
Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav weighed in. “‘Salman Rushdie’s book has been banned and a conspiracy is being hatched to create riots by allowing him to come here,” said Mulayam. “This Government has issued visa to Salman Rushdle for insulting the Muslim community,” added Lalu.
Ajit Jogi, the Congress MP, too, urged the Government that “it should reconsider its decision in regard to issuing visa to Salman Rushdie as his ideology is against all the religious groups of the country.”
Even in November 2015, Rushdie came up during a discussion in Lok Sabha on incidents of intolerance.
Countering the Opposition attack, BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi said: “I was going through the records and in the records I came across some comments on Salman Rushdie. Some words have been spoken about Salman Rushdie. His book was banned in the ‘80s. Who was in power at that time I need not say. In 2012, Rushdie was not even allowed to appear in a video conference in Jaipur.”
“So soon after the Nupur Sharma diplomatic embarrassment and the killing of the tailor in Rajasthan, everyone would rather play safe,” said a senior non-Congress Opposition leader. “The fact is Salman Rushdie has called out all of us across party lines…be it the Congress or the BJP. We are disturbed by the attack but are not sure of how a public stand will play out. Let’s quietly pray for his recovery.”