Celebrated writer Salman Rushdie, who is currently undergoing treatment after being attacked at an event in west New York, had found himself at the centre of a controversy in India and the Islamic world for his book ‘The Satanic Verses’ that came out in 1988. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to ban the import of the book, the first country to do so, remains contested to this day, within the Congress as well as outside.
Former Minister of State for External Affairs, Natwar Singh, defended the decision on Saturday, arguing that “it was taken purely in view of the law and order situation”. Singh had also told The Sunday Express that the decision had nothing to with “appeasing” one community.
On the other hand, P Chidambaram, who was the Minister of State for Home Affairs in the Rajiv Government, said in November 2015 that “he had no hesitation in saying that the decision to ban the book was wrong”.
The issue had figured in the Parliament repeatedly during discussions over the years, with the A B Vajpayee government’s decision to allow him to travel to India triggering a political firestorm in 1999.
The Indian-born author came to India with Zafar, his son, in 2000, his first visit in over a decade, amid massive security. He subsequently came to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2007, an event he had to cancel because of threats. He was not allowed to appear in a video interview at the festival in 2012. His last visit to India was in 2013, when he was also a guest on the Indian Express’ Idea exchange event.
A look at the references to the book in the Parliament:
Congratulating the government for “banning” ‘the Satanic Verses’ in the Lok Sabha, then Baramulla MP Saifuddin Soz, said, “I want a total ban on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses because it is potentially dangerous to our way of life, that is, secularism. So, I want a total ban on piracy and circulation of this book. I want the Home Minister to assure me on this”.
On March 16, 1989, during a Budget discussion, Congress MP Zainul Basher, thanked the prime minister and the finance Minister after India became the first country to ban the Rusdie’s book.
“I would like to tell the Muslims of my country that the Indian Government cannot do anything more than this. The Indian Government, unlike the Iran Government, is not an Islamic government. It is a secular Government, and with due regard for the sentiments of the Muslims living here, it was the first one to ban that book. Many Muslim countries are taking the decision to ban this book in their country now. 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.”
The book came up in Lok Sabha in another context on August 17, 1993. BJP member B L Sharma (Prem) raised the issue of a poster put up by an NGO called Sahmat at an exhibition in Ayodhya, with A B Vajpayee slamming the then P V Narasimha Rao government for allowing its display.
L K Advani took over to say: “I was making a very brief point to add to what Vajpayeeji has already said…The issue of secularism also, one of the things that is 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 (the NGO)…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 added.
Talking about a Constitutional Amendment Bill on May 2, 1997, BSP MP Iliyaz Azmi, said: “One of my colleagues has mentioned the issue of Salman Rushdie, who has written a book and a fatwa was issued against him proclaiming the death sentence. I would like to tell you that Salman Rushdie has blasphemed against the Prophet of Muslims. I do not think that this fatwa was wrong, anyway. I do not think that the life of a person, who abuses Bala Saheb Thackeray in Mumbai, will be spared?”
The conversation about granting a visa to Rushdie came up in the Lok Sabha on February 24, 1999.
E Ahamed, the Muslim League MP expressed resentment, saying: “Rushdie, in the eyes of the Muslim community of the world over is blasphemous. He has committed a blasphemy by abusing the holy Prophet of Islam and his family. 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. Freedom of expression does not mean freedom to wound other sentiments”.
Samajwadi Party’s Mohan Singh concurred. He said the government was “trying to divide the society on communal lines” by granting the visa.
“Consequently, many such incidents are taking place in the country with the sinister alliance of the government…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 the visa is totally wrong,” he said.
Mohan added 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 Hindus 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.”
Samajwadi party’ founder, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Lalu Yadav, weighed in. “‘Salman Rushdle’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, Congress MP, urged the government to “reconsider its decision in regard to issuing visa to Salman Rushdie as his ideology is against all the religious groups of the country.”
In 2021, “Satanic Verses” came up in the Rajya Sabha, when discussing a statutory motion moved by CPM’s P Rajeev to annul the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules tabled in the House. Arun Jaitley, then the leader of the Opposition, urged the minister to replace the word blasphemous from the rules.
He said: “I would urge the minister to kindly replace this word (blasphemous) with what is contained in the Indian law. Now, we have a very secular penal law that anybody who creates incitement against any religion or who expresses disrespect is liable. Now, ‘blasphemous’, internationally, at least, in some countries, is very narrowly defined. In England, for instance, ‘blasphemy’ is only against one religion…If blasphemy is an offence, it is against Christianity. It is not an offence against Islam, Hinduism, or Zoroastrianism.
“You have the judicial pronouncements in the British Courts when a restraint was sought on the Satanic Verses. They said, ‘no, you are saying that this is blasphemous of Islam, but this is an offence available only against Christianity’. So, the word really comes from the English dictionary, and, therefore, rather than using the word ‘blasphemous’, I have no difficulty if the words were, ‘anything which incites religious hatred or disrespect to any religion’ are used,” he had said.
In November 2015, when there was a growing discussion on the “rising intolerance” in the country, Rushdie’s book figured in the conversation again.
Countering the Opposition’s attack, BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi said, “I was going through the records…I came across some comments on Salman Rushdie. …His book was banned in the eighties. 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.”