Free speech is an important pillar of any democratic society, which may be censored for personal or political gains. Such censorship of free speech may lead to a society that shackles the very core of democracy. But in a country so diverse as India, what is the interpretation of ‘Free Speech?
Being a controversially wide topic, free speech includes creative freedom, artistic freedom, and much more. The biggest blow to this freedom was placed during the emergency in 1975 when there was no such thing as free speech. Not much after, Salman Rushdie’s book ‘The Satanic Verses’ led to a trend of creative censorship around the world.
Though, censorship of this book started a dialogue that involved some things more heinous than creative freedom. The author, Salman Rushdie was recently stabbed 3 decades after the release of the controversial book ‘The Satanic Verses.’ What were the events that created a worldwide controversy forcing the author to go off the grid for years?
The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie, an Indian-origin writer, published a fictional book, ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1988, which created worldwide controversy. It was interpreted that the book is based on the domestic life of Prophet Muhammad. What was more disturbing is that India despite being a democratic country was the first to ban the book even before it was published. Satan is a concept of the devil in the Abrahamic religions which seduces you to sin, many interpreted that the book was offensive towards a particular religion.
Match that lit the fire
The review by Madhu Jain, a close friend of the author is considered to be the match that lit the controversial fire. Published just nine days before its publishing, the review was titled ‘An unequivocal attack on religious fundamentalism.’ The review is said to deliberately highlight some parts of the book that talked about prophets’ wives and some infuriating verses.
However, the writer claimed that the study was doctored by the book’s page editor of the magazine who later went on to edit a national paper. India today concluded the article by saying, The Satanic Verses is bound to trigger an avalanche of protests from the ramparts. Which led to protests pan India.
Politically fuelled fire
As the review was published, it reached some high-power readers. Mainly with two opening players, Syed Sahabuddin- a former IFS officer turned politician, and Khurshid Alam Khan, another politician. These minority leaders demanded a ban on the book judging on the review. Leader Sahabuddin filed a petition seeking a ban on the book assuming that it would affect public order.
Journalist’s role in censorship
Khushwant Singh is a prominent Indian author and journalist who also called for a ban on ‘The Satanic Verses.’ He called for a ban in The Illustrated Weekly, stating that it would be a measure to prevent trouble. The author also claimed that the publishing house ‘Penguin’ asked for his advice on the book and also warned Salman about the consequences if published.
Congress bows to the appeasement politics
After the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reversed the supreme court’s verdict on the Shah Bano case, minority appeasement was quite clear in the country. Following the same pattern, Gandhi banned ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1988.
Being the first country in the world to ban the import of the book, Gandhi made the government’s stand clear on ‘Free Speech.’ The government also imposed a ban on Rushdie which prohibited him from entering India. Which was later lifted by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999.
Open Letter to Rajiv Gandhi
Calling out the then Prime Minister of India, Salman Rushdie said that Indian democracy is becoming something of a laughing stock. In an open letter, the author alleged that the government was looking out for Muslim votes.
His words were, ‘You know, as I know, that Mr. Shahabuddin, Mr. Khurshid Alam Khan, and their allies don’t really care about my novel. The real issue is the Muslim vote. I deeply resent my book being used as a political football; what should matter to you more than my resentment is that you come out of this looking not only Philistine and anti-democratic but opportunistic.’ He also addressed that if this ban continues, the world would question what kind of democratic society Mr. Gandhi is ruling.
Rafiq Zakaria’s reply to the open letter
A traditional Islamic cleric and Congress politician, Rafiq Zakaria replied to the open letter by Rushdie in The Illustrated Weekly in 1988. The congressman said that this wasn’t between the PM and author, but about the sentiments of citizens of India.
He asked several questions like, What is the significance of the title of your book The Satanic Verses? Has it not some historical connection? Do not the verses which refer to the three goddesses, condemned as Satanic and repudiated by Allah, the same as your reference to them in your novel? Your words are so clear that no other inference seems possible.
The letter further continues to ask such questions where the relevance between the book and Islamic beliefs are compared. Many non-muslim scholars also signed the letter questioning whether a democracy is a license to do whatever one wishes to.
Violence in India and Pakistan
In February 1989, about 12 protesters died in Mumbai while protesting against the author. People marched towards the British High Commission when the police opened fire at the crowd leading to the deaths.
A similar incident took place in Pakistan’s Islamabad, where five people were killed and about 80 were injured. This happened when thousands of Muslims marched toward the American Cultural center demanding the death of the author.
Iran declared Fatwa against Salman
Declared blasphemous, many Muslim majority countries banned the book by Salman Rushdie. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a Fatwa against the writer in 1989. The fatwa was called for the death of Rushdie and over the years a reward of $3.9 million was declared for his body.
A life off the grid
Award-winning writer, Salman Rushdie had to live under threat for more than three decades for his book ‘The Satanic Verses.’ He was forced to go into hiding after his book was published. Salman was put under protection by the British government as he was a British citizen. Later he took asylum in the USA.
Joseph Anton- A Memoir
Years after the controversy, Salman Rushdie published his memoir named Joseph Anton. Talking about the India Today review Salman wrote, With the passage of time came forgiveness.
Rereading the India Today piece many years later, in a calmer time, he would concede the piece was fairer than the magazine’s headline writer had made it look, more balanced than its last sentence. Those who wished to be offended would have been offended anyway. Those who were looking to be inflamed would have found the necessary spark. (Source: Joseph Anton)
The consequences of free speech continue
Almost after 33 years of publishing, Salman Rushdie continues to face the consequences of his writings. Influenced by the fatwa, a 24-year-old man stabbed the author on 12th August 2022 in New York City. The author suffered several injuries and had to undergo emergency surgery. In a world that pretends to be advocating free speech, the existence of religious fanatism seems outdated.