Satanic Versus Moronic: How Salman Rushdie Lost the UP Election

Oh, It’s silly season again. (Has it ever not been silly season? Silly me for making a silly rhetorical opening to this post). Anyway folks, aam aur khas janta, baba log and bibi log, it’s time, once monotonously again, for quarantines and piety, for bans and shoe-throwing contests, for frothing at the mouth and froth on the telly. Its Rushdie-Nasreen-Husain Time, again! Ta-Raa! And like a ‘sanjog’ made by a pretend-god in a made up marquee heaven, the stars of ‘Rushdie Time’ are crossed with the suddenly brightly shining stars of what would have otherwise been a lackluster, effigy-tarpaulined, mid-winter provincial election. Ta-Rant-Ta-Raa! Not even a Saleem Sinai or a Gibreel Farishta, let alone a jeeta-jagtaa Salman Rushdie in his weirdest magic-realist moment could have imagined himself mixed up in a plot as diabolical as this one. If this was a court case we could call it Satanic versus Moronic.  Whatever it is, there is no denying that it is a P2C2E – a ‘Process Too Complicated To Explain’. But explain we must. Process we can. Pyaar kiya to darna kya?

But seriously, just what will it take for assorted nincompoops of all varieties to stop reaching for their own leaking life-boats in the form of fulminations against Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen or (the late) M.F.Husain or A.K. Ramanujan whenever their dark and precious little corner of faith is threatened by the deluge of their own insecurity ? And just when will it be possible to discuss a book, a film or a work of art in this country on the grounds of its merit more and on the grounds of how it affects an idiot’s endocrine system less?

A spokesperson of the Daurl Uloom Deoband – an institution in the state of Uttar Pradesh (where elections, as we noted, are fortuitously due) that pretends to be a voice of authority in the lives of the Muslims of South Asia when it is in fact a sub-standard coaching centre for the mis-education of a hapless section of candidates hoping to be Sunni Muslim clergy had recently made a statement saying that Salman Rushdie, because he is the author of the Satanic Verses, ought not to be issued a visa for entering India to attend the forthcoming Jaipur Literary Festival.

His statement conveniently ignored the fact that Mr. Rushdie does not need a visa to enter India as he holds a PIO (‘Person of Indian Origin’) Card that entitles him to enter and exit India (for short periods) as and when he sees fit. If you take the Darul Uloom Deoband seriously, I strongly urge you to take a look at their web sites. Here for instance is Answer 5192 (regarding the Shia) from Darul Ifta, the web page of online fatāwā (classificatory statements on matters of faith) emanating from Darul Uloom Deoband.

(Answer 5192. Fatwa: 989/844=B-1429)

“The beliefs and faiths of Shiah found in their books are against the Quran and Hadith. Therefore, they are not Muslims. It is not correct for a Sunni Muslim to get married with a Shiah …”

The man who first issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, if memory serves me correct was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ‘Rahbar-e-Moazzem-e-Enquelab‘ (Supreme Leader) of the Iranian Revolution, probably the most prominent Shia cleric of his time. Two decade and a little more later, the Darul Uloom Deoband’s rector decides to echo a Shia Ayatollah’s stance about a novel. I suppose in these despairing  days of winter even those would be ordinarily deemed kafirs can be applauded if the warm promised glow of the fires of book burning are sighted on the horizon. It must be really freezing in Deoband.

Anyway, once the ‘don’t give visa‘ demand turned out to be a damp squib, a handful of worthies, self-appointed spokesmen all, claiming to represent the hearts and mind of millions of Indian Muslims, demanded that Salman Rushdie (whose book, Satanic Verses, continues, shamefully, to be banned in India for more than two decades now) not be allowed in anyway. Bus yun hi.

Some of them threatened to disrupt everyday life, some threatened dire consequences, some auctioned footwear throwing rights, others merely wanted to protest against the author (which they have every right to do, just as the said author has every right to be here). They neglected to pay attention to the fact that Rushdie has been in and out of India several times already in the last decade or so, or that his would-be presence at the Jaipur Literary Festival had nothing to do with the controversial book or its contents.

Meanwhile, the ‘Rushdie’ issue is threatening to become a mighty ‘election campaign’ question in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where every major political contender,  barring the BJP – Congress, Samajwadi Party and BSP, has its eyes on what is considered to be the bloc  ‘Muslim Vote’. No wonder it is silly season again.

This time, If the Congress endorses the Uloom-Phuloom-Jai Shri-Hocus-Pocus Circus, like the late Shri Rajiv-ji Gandhi-ji habitually did, it will win the benediction of the Moron Maulana Mafia of Darul Uloom Deoband, (Let us now take a deep breath and remember how gracefully Rajiv Gandhi waltzed with the worst kind of Hindu and Muslim reactionaries whenever he got a chance. When he deprived a divorcee called Shah Bano of her legal right to maintenance. When he opened the lock on the door of a disputed structure at Ayodhya. And, oh no, oh yes, when he ur-banned Satanic Verses and ensured that the Salman Rushdie genie could be coaxed out of the Alladin’s Lamp of the poverty of public debate and political imagination in India forever, on an ‘as and when’ and ‘as is where is’ basis.

The cynical satraps who run the Congress party must be thinking that a fit-faat-fatwa from Deoband, leading up to a convenient Rushdie quarantine might translate into a few thugs ‘arranging’ for the delivery of a few more Muslim votes than would have been the case were Muslims in UP to pay more attention to the fact that a Congress leader, Home Minister P.C.Chidambaram has every intention to continue to insult the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh by insisting that the ‘Batla’ House ‘Encounters’ were genuine. But then, who is to say that  P.C. Chidambaram is any less of a magic-realist than Salman Rushdie.

If the Congress ignores the ‘Rushdie’ issue, the spoils (it is thought by those who think they know) will land automatically, in the laps of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (the pocket borough of Muslim Fundamentalism in North India) or of the Bahujan Samaj Party (the pocket borough of Opportunist Fundamentalism in North india). The BJP, which has been somewhat distraught at the untimely deflation of the hot-air balloon of Anna Hazare and his cronies, has only to gain if the cake of the so-called Muslim vote it covets but can never bite into, is divided by the ungallant rivalrous and triangulated greed of its con-s(h)am-bahubali suitors. No matter who wins in UP as a result of appeasing reactionaries by keeping Rushdie out, the liberty of thought and expression loses. That is why democracy loses ever so often when elections are held in our glorious republic.

But let us not lose heart and head and hind quarter. Hope is at hand. To make things easy for everyone, It appears that the Government of Rajasthan (led by the same Congress Party) has decided to either formally, or informally, endorse a quarantine of Salman Rushdie and to breathe, for now, in a friendly but heavy fashion on the organizers of the Jaipur Literary Festival. The aim is simple. It must turn out so that Rushdie is somehow ‘discouraged’ in as hospitable way as possible from making an appearance at the forthcoming Jaipur Literary Festival. Consequently, It appears that the management of the Jaipur Literary Festival has decided to announce a ‘change in schedule’.

Once again, the wonderful, and quintessentially Indian art of consensual dithering while idiots clamor is working its magic. If Rushdie is prevailed upon, or persuaded not to come, the real villain of this piece will have revealed itself to have been the Government of Rajasthan, which, by acting to transfer the benefits of its patently un-democratic and illiberal action to the Congress party’s electoral prospects in a state that is not even Rajasthan, will have shown how cynical the imagination of our political class can be. The Congress will make the Congress gain by saying nothing. And then, when it is asked to take a stand. it will piously say it did no wrong, because it said nothing. It will have dealt the silent-hand of un-doing by doing nothing that outsmarts even the cleverest nay-sayers of Gup and Chup.

In all of this, the broad swathe of the mainstream media has played its usual and stellar role. (How can it not?) First by giving prominent attention to the Fatwa-in-Fief of Farul-Fuloom and then by wringing its hands in contrition at the sad prospects of not being able to air fawning and meaningless ‘exclusive’ interviews with Salman Rushdie. Predictably, in all the high drama that we saw on TV, the Government of Rajasthan was not asked by a single anchor for an explanation as to why instead of taking steps to prevent those who threatened mayhem from doing so, it was bent on appeasing them. That was one hell of a loud omission.

I watched two television discussions last night, on NDTV and on that acme of broadcasting lung power, Times Now. Suhel Seth defended freedom of expression with as much passion when it came to Rushdie and The Satanic Verses as he had displayed while opposing freedom of expression only a few weeks ago while debating the controversy around Kapil Sibal’s lofty thoughts on the Facebook pages that  insulted the same religious sentiments that Satanic Verses apparently injures. Arnab Goswami lambasted ‘the liberals who defended M.F.Husain’ asking ‘why are they silent now’ and then showed two ‘liberals’ – Ashok Vajpayee and Girish Karnad, who had both been vocal of their criticism of Hindu fundamentalist attacks on Husain and Ramanujan and were now, (rightly) very vocally critical of the fundamentalist Muslim response to Rushdie. But then, as we know well by now, Arnab Goswami is always right, even when he is always wrong.

A gentleman called Shahid Siddiqui (who claimed to have read the book, long ago in the twentieth century, and then recommended it be banned) appeared on both Times Now and NDTV, like a character in what could easily be a Rushdie novel – someone who has the magic power of carrying his own multipurpose, simultaneously multi-directional TV transmitter inside his own belly so that he can beam himself up to two different channels while saying two different versions of the same nonsense, almost at the same time.

Mr. Siddiqui said things like – “Salman Rushdie had to take back what he had written about Indira Gandhi, when she took him to court, why can’t he take back what he has written about the Propher Muhammad”.

It may come as a surprise to many, but Satanic Verses does not feature the Prophet Muhammad as a character, although Midnight’s Children (Rusdhie’s second novel) does have a character who is explicitly and unambiguously named Indira Gandhi (a.k.a the ‘black widow’). It would have helped if more people (especially those who are up in arms today) had actually read the book. But a strictly enforced ban does sometimes have a detrimental effect on the enterprise of informed criticism.It is true that people tend to read a book more when they can get their hands on it. The friends of bans are the enemies of readers.

In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie writes in a character named Mahound, who appears in the dream of another character called Gibreel Farishta, a fictional Bollywood Film Star given to seeing strange visions in his dreams in the aftermath of (impossibly, magically) surviving a free fall from an airplane blown up high in the sky by a terrorist bomb. Is Mahound, Muhammad ? The answer to this question lies at the heart of why Salman Rushdie needed to change a single line that occurred on page 406 of the Jonathan Cape edition of Midnight’s Children as the result of a court ruling in the UK at the end of a libel suit brought by Indira Gandhi against Salman Rushdie, and equally, at the heart of why the manufactured  Muslim outrage against Satanic Verses is actually without any basis.

Midnight’s Children has a prominent place for the fiendishness of Mrs. Gandhi’s actual political career and personality. Her regime is portrayed as blood-thirsty, manipulative, vindictive and venal (none of which is strictly untrue, as any objective assessment of the Emergency will bear out). But the line on page 406 of the Jonathan Cape edition of Midnight’s Children has her son, also named in the novel as Sanjay Gandhi (the ‘labia-lipped’) accusing his mother, Indira, of willfully neglecting his father and her estranged husband, Feroze Gandhi, when he was ill, to the extent that he had a heart-failure and died. Mrs. Gandhi may well have been outraged at the general mien of Salman Rushdie’s portrayal of her, but she chose to focus her ire on that one line of the Jonathan Cape edition. She sued him, in the court of the Old Bailey in London, not for blasphemy, not for obscenity, not for anything other than the specific charge of libel. She claimed that the allegation voiced in Midnights’ Children by the character called Sanjay Gandhi against the character called Indira Gandhi that she, Indira had committed criminal neglect of her sick estranged husband to the extent that he died because of it was a falsehood. By this time, Sanjay Gandhi, like Jibreel Farishta, had fallen from the sky, not to a life of strange dreams, but to his death. Feroze Gandhi had long gone, and no one is left alive that can say whether he died more of heart-break or of heart-failure. It was Indira Gandhi’s word against Salman Rushdie, and Salman Rushdie’s plea that ‘Indira Gandhi’ was a character in a novel did not persuade the court. A person called Indira Gandhi, it held, was Indira Gandhi. And so, the publisher and the author decided to remove that specific line from page 406. No other reference to Indira Gandhi (no matter how negative, or as some would say, vicious) was removed, or needed to be removed.

Indira Gandhi is Indira Gandhi, even in a novel. But Mahound is not necessarily Muhammad, and that is why Shahid Siddiqui’s comparison of the outcome of the legal process regarding the contentious sentence of page 406 of the Jonathan Cape edition of Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses affair is totally misplaced. What can be construed as libel in the first case cannot be transposed on to the second. Life is life and a novel is holy time-pass!

The fictionality of Mahound in Satanic Verses is foregrounded when we realize that the Mahound of Satanic Verses is not the only Mahound there is, He is neither the first Mahound, nor is he likely to be the last one. Mahound has existed as a myth, a character, an image, an archetype in the imagination much before Salman Rushdie thought of him. Medieval European Mystery Plays featured characters called Mahound who whispered evil suggestions into the ears of King Herod as he persecuted Jesus. Sometimes a Mahound would appear to goad the Pharao who harassed Moses before he ‘let his people go’ from Egypt. The Mahound who is imagined as being alive in the time of Herod, or a contemporary of Moses, cannot be Muhammad, who bears witness to his prophesy in Mecca, several centuries after the time of Herod, and even more after the time in which Moses is believed to have live.

‘Mahound’ is ‘in his paradise above the evening star’ in G.K. Chesterton’s 1915 epic poem ‘Lepanto‘ about the Battle of Lepanto between the Catholic Maritime Powers and the Ottoman Navy that took place in 1571. Is Chesterton’s ‘Mahound’ of 1571 the same as the Prophet Muhammad of the 6th Centure CE? Must Chesterton now be anathema, just as Rushdie is ? Do we now have to countenance of the burning of books featuring my (and Antonio Gramsci’s) favorite detective, Father Brown?

The hysteria around Satanic Verses does not confine itself to Mahound alone. It hinges particularly around Mahound’s companions. Many of those who have not read the book but are particularly fond of fulminating against it say they are repulsed by references to the name ‘Ayesha’. There are four characters called Ayesha, (also the name of one of prophet Muhammad’s wives) in Satanic Verses. All four feature in Gibreel Farishta’s dreams, and none of them can be legitimately considered to be the historic Ayesha. The most notorious of these Ayeshas is a female companion of Baal, Mahound’s adversary in the novel, who (along with Baal’s other female companions) takes the name of the wives of the prophet in order to be deliberately insulting to their memory. Baal is not Mahound, Baal’s companion is not Mahound’s wife. In this case, it is not an author who is being insulting, even as he portrays an insulting character, who is, within the narrative logic of the novel, punished for her action. To state that this pretend ‘Ayesha’ (pretend even within the complex narrative logic of a magic realist novel) is the historic Ayesha who is the wife of the Prophet Muhammad is grossly unfair. It is in fact to wish to transpose the ‘fake’ Ayesha on to the ‘real’ Ayesha. We should ask who is being more insulting here. the author who maintains the distinction between ‘fake’ and ‘real’  while dealing with the name of Ayesha, or the pious and outraged (non)reader who (mis)reads the ‘fake’ on to the ‘real’?

To follow such a line of willful nomenclatural misreading would also lead us to believe that you cannot have a character called Ayesha in a work of art or fiction. Let us immediately recall all copies of Cheb Khalid’s Rai song ‘Ayesha, Ecoutez Moi’. (Bal Thackeray’s demand that the names Sita and Radha in Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Fire’ be changed in order to avoid insult to Hindu Godesses was an instance of the same logic at work). Were we to acquiesce to such demand, not just fiction, any ordinary discussion of history and current affairs would be impossible.  Any critical discussion, say of the trajectory of Lal Krishna’s public life, the legacy of the comatose Atal Behari, the follies of Buddhadeb or the tyrannical acts of the late Shah of Iran, whose name, incidentally was Mohammed Reza Pehlavi, or the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah would be blasphemous –  as it would amount to a criticism of the Hindu deity Krishna, the Prophet Muhammad, the rightly guided Caliph Omar, and the Gautam Buddha.

The real irony of course lies in the fact that Salman Rushdie does know his early Islamic history and exegesis really well. No one who has an independent and serious engagement with Islamicate culture and has read Satanic Verses carefully can think otherwise As someone who takes early Islam and the rich scholarship around early Islam very seriously, I have no hesitation in saying that whatever I may or may not think about Rusdhie’s subsequent work, as a novelist and as a public figure, Satanic Verses, I do maintain, is one of the great philosophical novels of the twentieth century. Just as Midnight’s Children, and the sadly unknown and under-rated Grimus, remain lasting contributions to the way we can imagine ourselves anew in the South Asia,

Of course Satanic Verses is a delicate and audacious weave of how much Rushdie really does know and the intricate arabesques of his fertile novelist’s imagination. (Some would say, the ‘devil quotes scripture’ but, that, alas, is half the point of what is so sharp about Satanic Verses). One of the things he probably does know is the hadith (with an impeccable isnad or provenance) cited by Tirmidhi who quotes Thauban and (Ibn) Abu Hurayra (two well regarded and authoritative companions/sahaba of the Prophet Muhammad) as reporting that they heard the prophet say – “It will come to this that thirty imposters will arise and each one of them will put forth his claim to be the Apostle of God.”

(I am especially grateful to Syed Mohammad Talha Nazim’s comment – see below – for a necessary correction in the above paragraph. Abu Hurayra was incorrectly cited by me as Ibn Hurayra. Perhaps the late hour of the night when this was being written and posted, does play tricks with the mind, and sometimes, a sprite in one’s neo-cortex, or the  fatigue induced accidental cross wiring of neuronal transmissions between brain, nervous system, fingertips and keyboard, does substitute the typing of a son – ibn for a father – abu. Could we read this as an instance of a Satanic Keystroke ? The erroneous expression ‘Ibn’ has been retained in the text for reasons of transparency, albeit with a cancelling strike-through.)

The words ‘Apostle of God’ translates from the Arabic expression – ‘Rasul-Allah’ one of the common ways of describing the Prophet Muhammad. There is no ambiguity about the fact that where there is prophesy, there will also be imposture. Where there will be one prophet, there will be thirty charlatans. The radiance of revelation never fails to cast its own shadows. Faith and doubt are never far apart.

Listen to Muhammad Iqbal, Urdu poet and perhaps the greatest believing Muslim philosopher of twentieth century South Asia, speaking in the voice of the rebellious Satan, or Iblis, to the pious angel Gabriel, or Jibril, in a dialogic poem called Iblis o Jibril – (note the echo here between the things that Iqbal and Rushdie’s Jibreels hear from the angel’s adversary)

gar kabhi khilvat muyassar ho to pooch, Allah se
qissa-e-adam ko rangiñ kar gaya kiska lahu ?

maiñ khaktakta huñ dil-e yazdañ meñ kaante ki tarah
tu faqat Allah-hu, Allah-hu, Allah-hu

(Ask this of God, when next you stand alone within His sight—
Whose blood is it has painted Man’s long history so bright?

In the heart of the Almighty,like a pricking thorn I lie;
You only cry for ever God, oh God, oh God most high!)

Here it is devious Iblis, Satan, the great strategist, the great player of ruses and deceptions –  (Iqbal actually has Iblis refer to ‘mere fitne-jama-e-aql-o-khirad ka tar-o-pu‘ or, ‘the warp and weft of strategems, ruses, shenanigans‘ ) – who lies at the heart of the almighty.

Careful readers of both Iqbal and the Quran will not fail to recognize the echo of the phrase ‘closer than the jugular vein’ (The Quran, Surah Qaf) which is said to describe God’s relationship to man, in the claim of the intimacy of the thorn in the heart, and will also not fail to notice the fact that Satan in fact claims a greater resonance between his profanity and the strategems of God than Gabriel’s piety and God’s majesty. In fact, Gabriel’s piety, symbolized by his repetition of ‘Allah Hu, Allah Hu’, can only be exercised at a safe distance.Iqbal has  Satan saying that he is much closer to God than we can imagine. Iqbal is in fact saying nothing new, for generations of devour Muslims, especially in the more heterodox Sufi tradtitions, have maintained that the radically profane is closer to the sacred than we think or can imagine.

We can read all of the Satanic Verses, if we choose to, not as a calumny of the Prophet Muhammad, but as a meditation on imposture, on the telling of stories, and on the confusion between revelation and its shadows. Whosoever we may be, Muslim, non-Muslim, believer, atheist, agnostic, If we choose to read The Satanic Verses as a screed against Islam and its prophet, we end up revealing our innermost fears of the Muslim other, or even,  as the case may be, of the Muslim self, and of the Muslim self’s awareness of itself, and of its capacity to distinguish between reality and fiction, between dream, delusion and prophesy.

I am not for a moment suggesting that it is illegitimate to be offended by the Satanic Verses. One can be offended by any work of literature of art, even by a scriptural text, any scriptural text. And there is enough reason for offense being taken in the history of human cultural production. But the only really commensurate response to such offense is not to call for bans and quarantines but to produce acts of close, critical reading. Of counter-writing, or polemic and argumentation. But for any of this to happen, one must read. One can even choose not to read, but to prevent others from reading, or from being in the presence of an author is a grossly inadequate response to

Perhaps one day there will be translations of the Satanic Verses freely available in as many Indian languages as possible. People will laugh with Gibreel Farishta, with Saladin Chamcha, Mimi Mamoulian and Billy Battuta in Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Malayalam, Tamil. When Taslima Nasreen’s Bangla memoir ‘Dwikhondito’ was banned by the enlightened Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as a possible way out of the Nandigram quagmire, several people in different parts of the world downloaded, printed, bound and distributed copies of the pdf of Nasrin’s book. In this way, the ban was defeated, not just in words, but also in deed.

I know of good translations of The Satanic Verses in Arabic and Persian and a fragmentary translation in Turkish. They are available if you look hard enough for them on the internet. I am not going to disclose the urls of these websites, because if I do, Kapil Sibal, or some learned judge will demand that the entire Internet, and not just the odd Facebook page or two be taken down. If The Satanic Verses can be translated into Arabic, Persian and Turkish, I am sure it can also be translated into Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil and Bangla. I hope diligent translators do one day take up the challenge and do the reading public of the Indian subcontinent a big favor.

Meanwhile, even if Salman Rushdie has to stay away, the Jaipur Literary Festival, and the authors attending it could arrange to do a very simple thing. Simply have readings of small fragments of the Satanic Verses by as many authors attending the festival as possible. These can be done at every session. Or,if that is too much of a bother, and a burden on the schedule, at least at the session in which Salman Rushdie was scheduled to speak. Many of the authors attending are Indians. They don’t need visas, not even PIO cards. And while possessing a banned book maybe a crime. I am not sure that peaceable reading (for educational purposes only) of an extract from a single A4 sheet that has printed on it a select paragraph or two from the said book can be construed to be an offense. If reading aloud is a problem, copies can be made cheaply, and passed around to the audience. A time of silent, contemplative reading can easily be set aside at the beginning of the session(s). After all, even in a court of law, someone has to ‘read’ a supposedly offending text to decide what to do with it. This, I am sure, could be easily arranged. If an organization like SAHMAT gets it act together, it could even put out a petition that thousands will happily sign in favor of welcoming Salman Rushdie, or any author, or artist to India. Perhaps there could be a Satanic Verses Post Card campaign. That would be a good way of staying true to the legacy of Maqbool Fida Husain.

Salman Rushdie may yet lose the UP election. But may a writer’s words always win the higher ground, because the freedom of expression is more important than what happens to Salman Rushdie, or to a single book. So lets read, and never stop reading. Remember, tradition has it that the first revelation sent down to the Prophet Muhammad (now Sura 96 ‘Al Alaq’ in conventional renditions of the Quran) begins with the injunction – ‘Iqra!’ – ‘Read!’

The End. Khatam Shuddh.

60 thoughts on “Satanic Versus Moronic: How Salman Rushdie Lost the UP Election”

  1. Also, just for information: it is entirely possible to purchase the Kindle version of the Satanic Verses, sitting in India, with an Indian address. I have done so. And I’d say that it is absurd to consider the book offensive to Islam — EVEN if you choose to identify Mahound with Muhammad (and, frankly, it would be disingenuous not to, just as it is disingenuous to dismiss those passages as dream sequences when the entire book is a dream sequence of characters falling out of the sky unharmed, growing horns, developing halos, and so on).

    The controversial bits (about the verses) in fact portray Mahound as overcoming temptation and sticking to his principles. And the bits I dislike — the fundamentalist principles that Mahound in fact sticks to — would not, I think, be objected to by the mullahs, if they chose to read the book.


  2. Dear Shuddha
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece (as much as I enjoy Rushdie’s fiction, which I am a great fan of). I am fully in favour of Rushdie’s visit to Jaipur or anywhere in India, and condemn the present embargo on him from the politicians as well as a section of Muslim community. Having said that, I would also like to make an observation: you provided an excellent context to the character of Mahound (from Satanic Verses) who is basically a mythical person and not necessarily restricted to the historical imagination of Islam, and also his depiction in the novel not necessarily “supposed” to offend. I have always wondered (since the time Satanic Verses was released in 1988) about the reason of its offensiveness. We all know (and you have pointed out) that a work of art usually becomes “offending” on the basis of how its interpreted, not only by a lone reader, but also by critics, the media, and even politicians (who may have never read it). We have seen this mass hysteria being raised in the case of Taslima Nasreen, M.F.Husain and many others by people or institutions who deliberately projected such works as offensive or blasphemous for their own short-term goals. The artist (or interpreters like you and I) may not think it is really supposed to offend.

    But my very simplistic question (not necessarily to you, but to all readers) is: don’t you think that there has always been a very big gap between these works of art and the people who are “offended” by them? What I mean is, why didn’t anyone (or the artist her/himself) try to reach out to the people explain what their real interpretation or intention is? For example I think that Shuddha’s contextualization of Mahound’s character (or someone’s nice explanation of Husain’s nude Bharat Mata drawing) is something that may need to be disseminated to a larger readership, and may do a lot good to the cause of liberal arts. Why doesn’t the arts community ever try to bridge this gap. Of course, some people will still stick to their “offended” interpretations, and continue to brew trouble. Some of us (liberal artists) will also say: “why should only the artist explain her art to the people? Why don’t the people come to the art?” Also, offending the sentiments of a liberal artist is as outrageous as those of the religious fundamentalists, as so on. Well these are big questions and need to be debated at large – there are many other issues related to the Rushdie affair which I am not touching here. But I have always wondered (despite enjoying to read from my eclectic bookshelf) whether the creation and celebration of liberal art and literature by our elite English-speaking class is not a reflection of a schism in our society where a majority of Indians still do not have access to basic education and good literature or arts?

    I was in Jaipur two weeks ago on a family holiday, and went to watch the latest Shahrukh Khan movie in the famed Raj Mandir cinema hall, just to sweeten our holiday. After many years I collaborated with the cinema crowd that would hoot, whistle and clap on every important action and dialogue of the actor. A large number of that crowd probably came from the same locality of Jaipur which is protesting the visit of Rushdie. And I now can’t help but think: Isn’t an institution like the Jaipur Literature Festival (and the art it calibrates) a cocoon where the Raj Mandir cinema crowd would find itself completely lost? I am not asking for much. Just as Shuddha suggests the readings of excerpts from Satanic Verses from the A4 size sheets, wouldn’t it make sense if the JLF could also organise a workshop in front of Jaipur’s Jama Masjid or the Raj Mandir cinema where ordinary people could be encouraged to try to appreciate good literature, arts and cinema? Why are we leaving everything to our politicians? Why can’t the JLF organisers go and talk to the religious community? Why couldn’t they organise a meeting of Muslims with Rushdie where they could discuss what they want to (of course, one will have to make sure of the security arrangements – after all people get to meet even the Prime Minister) – has Rushdie ever tried that? Or maybe we are too happy living in our cosy cocoons?

    Yousuf Saeed


    1. Excellent post by Shuddhabrata. And I agree with you too about the ‘schism’ between so called elite and the ‘ordinary people’.


    2. Dear Yusuf,

      Thank you for your kind and considered comments. I do not disagree with you. I see no harm in ‘bridges’ being built between art works, literary works, and their intended and accidental publics.That is why I value the activities of translation and criticism. That is why i value free discussion and debate. The trouble with the Satanic Verses did not begin within the ranks of what you might call the ‘common people’. It began when a respected public intellectual called Khushwant Singh decided to weigh in against the book, not as an act of criticism, but as a recommendation for a ban. Had this ‘intellectual’ taken a different course of action, Rushdie’s life, and the public culture of debate in India and in many other parts of the world might have been very different. Had he not made his view ‘that ordinary muslims will be incensed by reading this book’ known, had police not opened fire on a procession in Bombay that took place in part instigated by this comment, had Rajiv Gandhi’s government, besieged as it was by anti-corruption charges sought to claim credibility by appearing holier than thou and banning the book, had that news of the ban on the book in India (and some protests elswhere) not caught Ayatollah Khomeini’s eye on a particularly bad day for the Iranian military during the Iran – Iraq war, had that fatwa not been translated into ‘blood money’ by the Khordad Foundation in Iran, had, had, had, it is quite likely that this book too, would have had an interesting but otherwise unremarkable career in the public imagination. it would have been commented upon, discussed, trashed, praised for all sorts of relevant reasons. The fact is, an intellectual did the irresponsible thing, not of building, but of burning a bridge between the book and its possible publics. My contempt is not for those who feel offended by the book, especially those who may be ordinary believers. My contempt is only for those who stoke that feeling and feed on it to carve out a niche for themselves from which they legislate what others should or should not be reading. These tend to be people who make their public careers out of thought and speech, preachers, clerics, writers, leaders – in other words, ‘intellectuals’. The question that we should ask then is not about the distance that separates the public from the cultured, but about the distance that gets created when the so called cultured come between a public and culture.

      I do not think culture, art, literature are luxuries. I think they are necessities, and to assume that just because people are not well to do they would have no interest in the realms of creativity and the imagination is to me a little patronising. The question to ask is not ‘why are the people not reading’ but ‘why are there no libraries for them to read in’, ‘why are the schools that people send their children to so poor and inadequate to the task of education’ , ‘why are the leaders of society that are so quick to brag about its economic growth so indifferent to the povertyy of contemporary cultural life’, ‘why is any money at all spent on nuclear weapons in India (that make no one any safer) and so little spent on culture, health and education.’ There is no shortage of money in this country. Not of the kind that you would need for a decent infrastructure for education and robust contemporary culture.


      1. Shuddha, just to clarify – I did not mean that “people who are not well to do… have no interest in the realms of creativity” – of course people of all sections of soceity have their own range of creativity and arts. That’s why I mentioned the cinema audience of Jaipur to drive the point about the schism we have created. My emphasis was that our protest and knee-jerk reaction against them is only going to worsen that schism. So, a proactive reaching out rather than a protest, would be a better idea. But I wonder if anyone will discuss these questions in the festival.


  3. Khomeini’s Fatwa might have more do do with caricaturing of Khomeini in the book. I am surprised that is hardly ever mentioned.


  4. i tried reading Satanic Verses many a times but didn’t find it interesting enough to continue and whatever i read was highly derogatory stuff for a the character greatly revered by Muslims …..yet I don’t see myself on the side of those who are against Rushdie visit to India….those who feel offended should have tried responding him thru a similar effort , meaning writing books refuting the unacceptable traits attributed to the Arabian Prophet…..they can do it even know….but for that they will have to read the book which is banned on their own demand….


    1. I agree with you about what you think would be the responsible and serious way of responding to anything offensive. Especially, on responding through creative acts, by writing books and making works of art. And yes, they (those who are offended) can do it even now, and maybe they will even write a true masterpiece But, as you say, to do that they would have to read the book, and engage with Rusdhie, not keep him at bay.


  5. the protestors have a right to protest, even if we dont agree with what they are saying. this is true for rushdie lovers as well as satanic verses haters. what bothers me is the opportunistic politicisation of both these sides for use in assembly elections. instead of focussing on this, the media subjects us to banalities in the name of freedom from david davidar and tarun tejpal. deliberately obfuscating or plain dumb?


    1. I don’t think the protesters have the right to ask for a man to be killed or for him to be denied entry into the country. Rights are practicable only until they do not infringe upon the rights of others: asking for Rushdie to be murdered or deported on arrival amounts to forcibly denying him his rights of life and free movement, and the protesters certainly DO NOT have the right to do that.


      1. Well, I am not siding with anyone here, but when people were protesting against Union Carbide factory of Bhopal (after the tragic gas tragedy), the protesters were either not allowing the director of Union Carbide to enter the place or wanting his blood. Ok, in that case there was a definite case of the death of thousands of people due to poisnous gas, and their anger was justified. People in UK and USA rallied together to make sure that Narendra Modi did not enter UK or US. Similarly, America’s attack on Iraq to eliminate Saddam Husain (and on Libya to kill Qaddafi) is also a kind of protest against their excesses. It all depends on how aggreived the people are. People come out on the streets in anger in most situations, and for them its justified. Ok, Rushdie did not kill or harm anyone physically. But sometimes a spark for a mass-scale violence can be started by non-violent means too. Good literature and art has to be meaningful for the entire society or at least a large number of people. If it satisfies only a select few, then its self-indulgence.


      2. As you point out again and again, the main difference here is that Rushdie is being hounded for practicing his constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech, while the others (Modi and Saddam Hussain and the UC chairman) can be justifiably said to have blood on their hands. I don’t see how Rushdie can be put into that league by any means. In this case, it is the protestors who seem to be doing all the violence.

        It is NOT Rushdie’s problem if other people start burning his books. It is the book burners who are at fault by violating all common rule of law and decency. Do you propose that if person A writes article B, and a group C starts burning buses and killing people (this has actually happened in riots about Rushdie) asking for article B to be banned, then it is person’s A fault? How exactly? We should not even pretend those hounding MF Hussain and Rushdie have any point at all when they resort to threats of violence. Also, clubbing people like Tasleema Nasreen, Rushdie, Ramanujan, Periyar or MF Hussain with certified human right violators like Saddam Hussain and Modi and the UC board is the height of “blame-the-victim” mentality.


  6. Love this piece. Very eloquently and articulately put. You’ve cleared up a lot of the supposed controversy here itself. I hope that DUD and the Rajasthan govt read this someday, and realize the profundity of their immaturity and stupidity.
    What puzzles me the most is why our govt is busy trying to appease the Darul group than actually pursuing something more “ethical” (the freedom of speech, for starters)?! By imposing a ban on Rushdie, the govt is clearly violating a founding principle in our very constitution.
    The other thing I fail to comprehend is the persistence of the supposed-mass-Muslim-hate against Rushdie’s novel. I mean, over 20 years have passed since the “polemic” content was published. And he’s already paid profusely for it (death threats, et al). Come on, guys, let it go now! You’ve made your point, no matter how shallow and circularly logic-ed it was. And there are clearly no grounds for the bloated controversy surrounding his novel, as you’ve deftly demonstrated in this piece.
    Clearly, our govt is crippled of thinking independently, its vision blurred by a desperation to flood vote banks. This makes me remark, as I’ve done time and again, and lament about the pathetic-ness of India’s political climate.


  7. Shuddhabrata Sengupta,
    For a moment, I’ll choose to agree to agree with you on all that you said but just two basic questions:

    1. Who or what gives you the authority (and please don’t rant platitudes like ‘freedom of speech’) to call Darul Uloom Deoband “a sub-standard coaching centre for the mis-education of a hapless section of candidates hoping to be Sunni Muslim clergy”? Have you studied the sciences of Quranic exegesis and Prophetic traditions and how they have contributed in the shaping of human civilization that you now have the chutzpah to call an institute that, although not perfect, has produced some of the finest thinkers of nineteenth and twentieth century? For you the likes of Qasim Nanotwi, Mahmood Hasan, Anwar Shah Kashmiri might not be as alluring as the likes of Kant, Wittgenstein, Schopenhaueur. But to the less ignorant and less biased, the former are wisdom personified. Do go through their work if you ever find the time, I beseech. It won’t make them any more famous but it would definitely make you more aware.

    2. Condescending while you were, you cited: “Thauban and Ibn Hurayra (two well regarded and authoritative companions/sahaba of the Prophet Muhammad) as reporting that they heard the prophet say – “It will come to this that thirty imposters will arise and each one of them will put forth his claim to be the Apostle of God.”
    While writing such a well researched piece I wonder how you committed the blunder of making the Abu Hurayra (Father of cats) into Ibn Hurayra (Son of cats)? Or was it a brilliant tribute to Rushdie and the genre of magic realism which the less erudite like me happen to completely miss out upon?

    Thanks (for what?)
    Syed Mohammed Talha Nazim


    1. Kant and Wittgenstein are durust for worshipers of chairman mao, stalin, lenin and the people’s commune. Yeh inkeliye fareb hain. Bharat me intellectual ka matlab jholla kurta, aur waste of time hota hai. Waise hum yahan waqt barbad nahi kate aap ki tippani par hum tabsirra kar rahe the. You can forget is syed saheb koi citation nahi, noi historical evidence building nhai sab convenience ke liye hai. Bhare pet log inko sukoon hai, likhenge, choti muh badi baat. Doing a quick Lucanian metaphor Liberal equals Rajaram no no Falwy no no, Lenin, Stalin yes yes, no independent judgement to discredit or approve a book, the urge to be a part of a flock and hegemonise cultural capital, good that the vast majority of people have no time.


    2. If reason and tehzeeb have gone and there is a riot, these so called jholla type bourgeoise liberals and marxists living on borrowed ideas borrowed themes[the worker must slog it out but comrade can go first class with single needle tailored arrow shirt] who declare apostates and kufars at their leisure and convenience and make ordinary workers die, the slimy sangh parivar and the wahabi certificate givers lampoon believers, all these fundamentalists who declare others apostates are vile and while one dreams of ummrah, the other santana dharma, the other jannat of the first congress[poor chaps they all died one by one] are the main cause of hatred and a lack of a spirit of accommodation.

      6 months back everyone forgot because it is outside delhi loop of comrade who commuted suicide in Madras because he was not considered pure enough] these certificate givers creators of binary identities perpetuate their muddled confusion and vague dreams of revolution[working with a CITU street worker and production manger[the enemy of the people read the infidel stone him comrade] is much more sensible], None ready to stand up for her or his own but to agree just to agree to be a part of the flock. To criticize a religion you need to know its language its metaphors not contemptuously dismiss its contents. Life is certainly very different for a chandala and a bhadralok bengali marxisit maoist.


  8. Beside being an interesting read, your article is very informative for a person not as well read, like me. Having said so, I have a question. Is it true that the imaginary character called Mahaound has been used as a variant for real Mohammad by many in Europe who dislike Islam and find it an enemy of Christianity? If so, why can’t Muslim readers find the whole book so offensive. Of course even then banning the book might not be a solution and threatening to disrupt peace if Salman Rushdie visits India or (to JLF, sponsored by Rio Tinto and Tata steel – how liberal these MNC giants are?) can not be justified and should be apposed.


    1. By the way, apart from UP elections, the row over Rushdie has given a golden chance to Ashok Gahlot to make for his lost face among Muslims in Rajasthan, after his police killed 12 innocent meow muslims in Gopalgarh.


      1. Sir, I asked a question in my first comment. “Is it true that the imaginary character called Mahaound has been used as a variant for real Mohammad by many in Europe who dislike Islam and find it an enemy of Christianity?” If its true then your emphasis on the imaginary character of the novel having no resemblance with historical might not stand.


    2. Dear Nesar,

      yes, the figure of Mahound did come to signify a parodic depiction of the Propher Muhammad by several Islamophobic writers. There is a useful book on the subject – ‘Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth Making’ by Minou Reeves, New York University Press, 2003.

      that does not take away from the fact that Mahound is a product of the imagination. Satanic Verses is a work bounded within the imaginary universe of an imaginary characher whose reference is a whole legion of imaginary characters all called Mahound, some of whom, as I showed, are seen as being co-present with Herod or Moses, as being beings outside of time, leaving little room for saying that they at all times, and in all instances, overlap with a historic figure such as the Prophet Muhammad.

      Let us now argue that what Rushdie does is to take this imagined character, and weave his novel around it. By that token, his work is a parody of a parody, an instrument he uses to make a series of compelling arduments about the relation of faith to doubt, of life to fiction, of events and recounting, or reality and imagination. Let me give you another example, the Bengali comic poet Sukumar Ray (father of Satyajit Ray) wrote a hilarious children’s play called ‘Lokkhoner Shoktishel’ featuring an obviously parodized cast of characters that point to, but need not be confused with, the worshipped figures of Ram and Hanuman. If a novelist spins a tale that takes Sukumar Ray’s creation as a starting point, then his reference is not necessary completely co-incident with the orginary figures of Ram and Hanuman. Similarly, in the case of Rushdie, I think we should think about the relation between Mahounds, and see what that tells us, rather than obsess about the relationship between Rushdie’s Mahound and the historically grounded figure of the prophet;


      1. As it has been said many times, its all about interpretation. At the same time many authors have suggested that finding the book offensive by Muslims was not totally out of place. And the great Rushdie even apologized. This article written after few months of the whole thing began clears many things.
        If I remember correctly the Wikipedia article also mentions that the publishers were told by their editorial team even before publication of the book that it might cause troubles.

        As for me, I belive in what has been said above by Ronn. Muslims should forget the issue now. They have made their point right or wrong. Rushdie has been visiting India after that and he has every right to do so. And elections should not determine your actions. But if one is in business of politics in India he/she will be guided by the elections. So, ab kya karien? Yeh sab chalta rahega. elections hote rahenge. bematlab ke mudde uthte rahenge,aur sath mein JLF hota rahega. Ab toh har shahar mein ho raha hai…:)


  9. sorry sir may be you would defend him {Salman Rushdie } but being a Muslim i can’t for that matter being an Indian i can’t support him. even him being a genius in his field. i never knew about what he has done that he has been so hatred , even my parents never said it to me because they just don’t want to remember the book incident.i am really thankful to you for clarifying.but again no one has any right to hurt someone religious sentiment, & if Mr.Rushdie being a such knowledgeable person cannot understand it , then who ?


    1. Looks like the article went entirely over your head, if you’re not even willing to examine what exactly it is about the book that is offensive. There are several Muslim commenters before you who have responded thoughtfully to the actual content of the book rather than making knee jerk statements like this.

      i never knew about what he has done that he has been so hatred(sic) , even my parents never said it to me because they just don’t want to remember the book incident.i am really thankful to you for clarifying.but again no one has any right to hurt someone religious sentiment

      So basically neither you nor your parents know anything about the book other than what someone else told them, and on that basis you’re all offended?


    2. Consider this: you say no has the right to offend aynone’s religious sentiments. Are those sentiments so precious that those who think they are “offended” get the right to call for the perceived “offender” to be “murdered” or jailed? Somehow that seems rather illogical, doesn’t it?


  10. For a member of a coterie that so enthusiastically opposed a Book Festival in Kashmir, you will pardon my skepticism at your manufactured outrage. Where was your defence of Rushdie again vested Muslim interests then?


    1. Dear Shome,
      There may be many people in Kashmir and elsewhere who do not want him to visit Kashmir. I am not one of them, never have been.

      I opposed the grounds on which the organizers of the proposed Harud Literary Festival had declared that they were envisaging an ‘apolitical’ event. I do not believe there is anything called ‘apolitical’ literature. I would have had no problem with the holding of the Harud Literary Festival, or for that matter, any festival in Kashmir, or anywhere, if it did not hold out restrictive qualifiers like ‘apolitical’ to describe itself. I would also not have any problem with Salman Rushdie (who is of Kashmiri descent) visiting Kashmir, especially two of his works, Shalimar the Clown, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and parts of Midnights’ Children have a lot to do, either directly, or indirectly with Kashmir. In an interview given in the wake of the publication of ‘Shalimar the Clown’, that is available at –

      Rushdie says, while describing the violence of the Indian Army’s presence in Kashmir, the following –

      “…The phrase of “crackdown” that the Indian army uses really is a euphemism of mass destruction. And rape. And brutalisation. That happens all the time. It’s still happening now. And so, yes, I am angry about it! The decision to treat all Kashmiris as if they’re potential terrorists is what has unleashed this, the kind of “holocaust” against the Kashmiri people. And we know ourselves, from most recent events in Europe, how important it is to resists treating all Muslims as if they’re terrorists, but the Indian army has taken the decision to do the opposite of that, to actually decide that everybody is a potential combatant to treat them in that way.”

      I don’t agree with every public pronouncement that Salman Rushdie makes. And I am not the kind of gushing admirer who thinks everything that he writes is wonderful. But I do agree with Rushdie’s take on the Indian Army in Kashmir, as I am sure a lot of people, especially people in Kashmir do. The trouble is, in both camps, amongst the people who champion Rushdie and the people who vilify him, there are very few who actually bother to read what he writes or has to say. As I said in my post, the only remedy to the general malaise of jumping to conclusions too quickly, is ‘Iqra’, ‘Read’.


  11. Shuddhabrata, I agree with most of your points, but you are very seriously prejudiced against the people at Darul Uloom Deoband (I am guessing that your word ‘moronic’ has been used to refer to them). If you make judgements about them by what is given on their website, then you are extremely mis-informed. Of course you will find many silly-sounding things on their website (and a meeting with their students or teachers today may provide you with even sillier things), but that still does not give you the right to call an institution a “sub-standard coaching centre for the mis-education…” It basically tell us that where you have studied is probably a much higher standard coaching centre. Deoband has a history of higher learning too – producing some of the early freedom-fighters in India. Deoband even used to have (or still has) a medical college which taught the tib or hikmat. Of course today you may find many faults with it, but Deoband is still as good an institution as any rural-based college in India – they all have similar faults. The fatwas are issued by Deoband because thousands of Muslims continue to refer to the institution with their basic day-to-day problems. They have nowhere else to go. Also, a large number of students who enrol there are so poor that they have nowhere else to go. Education and food is free there, and its all paid via alms given by many people (most of this contribution is local and very little from abroad). Everyone who blames the madrasas for producing “terrorists” has no inkling of what role they play in the poverty-ridden rural India. I find your comment EXTREMELY POMPOUS when you call it “a sub-standard coaching centre for the mis-education”. Have you or anyone from urban India ever thought about modernisation of the madarsas or making an intervention into what they are teaching or professing? I think someone in the comments above (probably Yusuf) pointed out that it is WE who have created a schism that allows such a situation. Yes that is true. Has anyone (including the organisers of Jaipur festival) ever tried to invite the maulanas to their panel to speak about why they are so angry? Oh, no, that will be so uncool.


    1. Thank you very much! These urbane Indians never look beyond cities. If they would read history they would role of Deoband more constructive in Indian Freedom Movement than elitist AMU.


    2. Javed: Don’t you think that an organization, whose high officials call for a persons right to enter the country to be unlawfully taken away just because they disagree with him on a religious issue, justifiably deserve some brick bats?


  12. Thank you for writing this thoroughly enjoyable obituary of commonsense. I even like its roughness and errors which you have poetically attributed to satanic discrepancies!


  13. The writer would have you believe that “Mahound’ has nothing to do with the portrayal of my Prophet(saw). In fact, the term Mahound is actually a variant name, spelling of Muhammad, who was perceived as the enemy and shadow self of Christendom in the middle ages. Armstrong, in her ‘Muhammad’ quotes R. W. Southern, in his treatise, Western Views on Islam in the Middle Ages. “…these legends were taken to represent a more or less truthful account…But as soon as they were produced thy took on a literary life of their own….Like well-loved characters of fiction, they were expected to display certain characteristics, and authors faithfully reproduced them for hundreds of years.” For the writer, a google search is the idea of real scholarship and this makes him confident to pen a few lines, in this excruciating essay, on even Hadith and interpretation of Islamic literature. He is ignorant of the fact the the supposed Tradition that Rushdie had employed was a weak narration as recorded by Tabari and has no corroboration in any authentic book of Hadith like the Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi etc. This know-it-all attitude of yours which gives you license to comment on everything even though it might(and does) hurt fellow muslims(who know more than you)is clearly a result of an elite college education, as opposed to sub-standard eduaction which coaching centres like Deoband offer, where the students at least are expected to observe some intellectual humility and not encroach into areas of which they have no knowledge. The very Iqbal he quotes was known to have all praise for Deoband and even was in constant correspondence with their “Dons”. Rushdie’s inability to understand the transmission of Hadith,and the lunacy of his ‘fertile imagination’ is no reason why we should read, re-read and spread this terrible book.(but you the right to do what you like anyway).


  14. Perhaps the most contentious and difficult part of the whole issue lies is what has been raised and captured well in these lines:

    “I am not for a moment suggesting that it is illegitimate to be offended by the Satanic Verses. One can be offended by any work of literature of art, even by a scriptural text, any scriptural text. And there is enough reason for offense being taken in the history of human cultural production. But the only really commensurate response to such offense is not to call for bans and quarantines but to produce acts of close, critical reading. Of counter-writing, or polemic and argumentation. But for any of this to happen, one must read.”

    I have a couple of things to say in passing on this matter. Firstly, readers of Salman Rushdie’s book of essays ‘Imaginary Homelands’ will recall the provocative definition regarding freedom of expression by the author: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Now consider the fact that in his famous essay on Baudelaire (in ‘Scenes from the Drama of European Literature’), the great philologist Erich Auerbach had made this equally provocative point that those who were most outraged in the Christian world by Baudelaire’s poems, were the ones who understood the dark power of his writings better than those readers who applauded Baudelaire. Between Rushdie’s contention and Auerbach’s, the most radical temperament of a writer’s imagination is laid bare. No amount of bad faith can shroud it.


  15. You get hurt, you not read. Me not get hurt, me read. Me get hurt, me not read. You not get hurt, you read. Comprende? No? Go, get a life.


  16. The writer would have you believe that “Mahound’ has nothing to do with the portrayal of my Prophet(saw).

    Except that the article doesn’t say this.

    I think it fairly clear that the character of “Mahound” (as used in Western literature) did have its origins in the Prophet Muhammad but it then developed a personality of its own, exactly as you quote Karen Armstrong as saying:

    But as soon as they were produced th[e]y took on a literary life of their own….Like well-loved characters of fiction, they were expected to display certain characteristics, and authors faithfully reproduced them for hundreds of years.

    If you read the article, you will see that this is also what Mr. Sengpupta says. The fact that “Mahound” developed a personality of its own makes its identification with the Prophet Muhammad difficult. If I may make a Hindu comparison, take the word “juggernaut.” The word comes from “Jagannath.” Indeed, this is the sense in which the word was used in 19th century works like “Jane Eyre”:

    “My dear children,” pursued the black marble clergyman, with pathos, “this is a sad, a melancholy occasion; for it becomes my duty to warn you, that this girl, who might be one of God’s own lambs, is a little castaway: not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien. You must be on your guard against her; you must shun her example; if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse. Teachers, you must watch her: keep your eyes on her movements, weigh well her words, scrutinise her actions, punish her body to save her soul: if, indeed, such salvation be possible, for (my tongue falters while I tell it) this girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut — this girl is — a liar!”

    However, I don’t think anyone will seriously say that a person using “juggernaut” now means to insult Hindus. The use of a word changes over time.

    Rushdie, though, is a special case. He belongs to the Western tradition (his entire education was in the UK) and he clearly sees himself as a writer in the Western tradition. However, he also belongs (tenously?) to the Islamic world (even if he no longer believes in Islam) by virtue of his birth. Whether he meant to use “Mahound” in the sense that Western writers have used it or whether he meant something more, I can’t say. I have not read the book. However, clearly, you have made up your mind. Fair enough.


    1. “He belongs to the Western tradition (his entire education was in the UK) and he clearly sees himself as a writer in the Western tradition. ”

      That seems to be a weird conclusion, given how many central plot elements he seems to borrow from Indian, Persian and Arabic folk tales. In fact, having a working knowledge of Urdu or Hindi, in my experience, greatly enhances the experience of reading his works.


  17. What a superb article, thank you.
    This issue is back where it started, because the Satanic Verses issue actually did start in U.P. An ex supreme court lawyer turned politician decided to stand for election, and found that his opponent when interviewed about TSV, was against the banning of it. So our lawyer turned politician, who had the ear of Rajiv Gandhi at the time, persuaded him to ban the book (and won his election), and it was only after India banned the book, that anyone else began to take notice of it. Fatwas and hiding and asylums followed, the rest is documented.


  18. just as it was wrong to have postponed the Harud festival in kashmir due to some weird protests, it is wrong again to not let Salman speak at the jaipur festival.i have read most of the above and i must say that at the end it becomes a matter of what your own world-view is like, based on which one decides in different situations. freedom of speech should be one fundamental value, whatever the religion you may or may not be following. and yes Read, Read and Read as well as Listen, Listen and Listen are two other fundamental values one needs to incorporate in one’s world-view, so that many many misunderstandings and conflicts could be dealt with in a more mature way, rather than just wanting to wish inconveniences away. and again thanks to Buddha’s long explanations, i was reminded of the anti-woman nature of the critics of SV by one and all. why has it been so important what Mahaund represents in the novel and not what happens to Ayesha and his other wives? even the readers here have been quiet on that. this is more disturbing for me than what a creative writer has written 25 years back?asha


  19. Many years ago I attempted to read “Satanic Verses”. I got allergic to its numerous allegories and barely managed to finish it with great difficulty. I am afraid I do not share Shuddhabrata’s enthusiasm for it. Rushdie’s short stories are more within reach of my intellectual faculties. Having said that and although it is hard for me ,I am reading Satanic Verses again as a mark of protest against the spineless surrender by the Indian State and organizers at Jaipur to this blackmail by bigots and rabid idiots. Book’s PDF version can easily be goggled by anyone. So much for the ban on it ! Thankfully there was Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar as a saving grace who read excerpts at the festival. That mitigated some shame I felt at this capitulation. And I would like to quote the opening lines from this book,”To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Hoji! Hoji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister,without a sigh?”


  20. Indeed very scintillating and discerning article on Slman Rushdie imbroglio,in which you could talk straight to the obscurantist and Khomeini-like voice in this country! Artists,painters and intellectuals in India are always taken hostages by the fundamentalists forces ever since Rajiv Gandhi’s banning of classic ST in 80’s.
    Freedom of expression is endangered and writers like Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin are persecuted in the land wherein Nehru once proudly rendering red carpet treatment to intellectuals like Andre Malraux, Arthur Koestler,Galbraith! Dr. Man Mohansingh’s criminal silence in this whole controversy is abominal and unexpected!

    Krishna Pachegonker


  21. Shuddhabrata has done a great disservice by rehashing the hackneyed and cliched contrast of the ‘Liberal Muslim’ (Rushdie) vs. the ‘Muslim Fundamentalist’ (the Mufti at Deoband). This, unfortunately, is the stereotypical Christian or Hindu view (in case of Shuddha, in spite of his professed liberalism) in the garb of a ‘Liberal’ view (I am growing increasingly convinced that it is impossible to be truly and consistently liberal/democratic while being in the present Indian society. Those Indians who claim to be liberal, often betray their illiberal sub-conscious on critical occasions. This, of course, does not hold true for the Indians coming from the oppressed sections of the society like B R Ambedkar, or for those who directly face repression and fights against it). What else can explain Shuddha’s interpretation of the said Fatwa as anything more than the expression of an opinion, or at most the articulation of a demand by a religious teacher of a minority community whose sensibilities are offended by Rushdie’s work? Fatwa has a broad meaning – it can mean from an injunction to an opinion, depending on the context. The scholar at Deoband said or did nothing more than asking the government to deny Rushdie a visa – an opinion or a demand one may or may not support as per ones’ conviction. After all, he did not ask for Rushdie’s head, nor did he mobilise a squad to vandalise the JLF or eliminate the writer a la the Hindu-communal fascist gangs (to push the liberal argument – even asking for someone’s head is not criminal, as long as one desists from taking part in executing or instigating that wish). So why this intolerance by the ‘Indian liberal’ for the expression of an opinion or a demand by an Islamic scholar? Is it because the very mention of the word ‘fatwa’ makes warning bells ring in the discerning mind of the unbiased and unprejudiced Hindu Indian liberal!? How else does one explain the portrayal of Deoband as a “substandard coaching centre”? How different is such stereotypical depiction of the Muslim from that of the honorable Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who once dubbed madrassas as the “dens of terrorists” (another example of an illustrious Indian liberal, and may I add, a Bengali Bhadralok liberal at that!)? If liberals have such views, what gainsaid of the Hindu-fascist’s (or the WASP neo-crusader’s) views of the Muslims and the Islamic world?! And who is going to decide whether or when a member of a persecuted religious minority in this country should or should not be offended? Is it going to be Shuddha? The Indian government? The Hindu-fascists? What locus-standi Shuddha has to demand that the Muslims should not be offended by Rushdie? Or to suggest that the ‘correct’ interpretation of Satanic Verses is the one offered by him but not that of the Islamic scholar at Deoband?! What right does he have to say that a Muslim must not even express an opinion or a demand to the effect that someone s/he abhors be denied the right to enter the country? Of course one can protest against the Indian government if by conceding to such an opinion or demand it denies Rushdie the visa. Or call the bluff when the government plants a non-existent “threat to life” on Rushdie to dissuade him from coming to the country. Or condemn the JLF which wants to confine freedom of expression within the “four corners of the law”. The point is, the villain of the piece here is not the Deoband scholar or his institution so condescendingly dismissed by Shuddha . The culprit is the Rajasthan government, and more so, the cultured and liberal organisers of JLF who succumb to the government’s pressure and send writers packing from the venue, who talk of “love for literature” while taking funds from the Tatas and Rio-Tinto (as someone mentioned in a comment above). Is it not fundamentalism (fascism, to be more precise) of an intellectual variety in the name of liberalism and liberal art? Of course, the highly educated erudite mostly-Hindu upper class/caste organisers and participants of the JLF cannot conceivably be accused of being fundamentalists, can they?! It is only for the Muslim (if madrassa-educated, even better) that this badge of honor is reserved! Hope Shuddha would reflect. Because such crash opinions from him is disappointing to say the least. Because it smacks of his Hindu majoritarianism, his genuine efforts at being an Indian liberal notwithstanding.


    1. “What locus-standi Shuddha has to demand that the Muslims should not be offended by Rushdie? Or to suggest that the ‘correct’ interpretation of Satanic Verses is the one offered by him but not that of the Islamic scholar at Deoband?!”

      I would say, one in particular: Shuddha appears to have read the book, and there is no evidence that the Islamic scholar at Deoband, or any other Islamic scholar who has expressed a public opinion, has read it.


    2. Like it or not: Deoband is the culprit too. They work to restrict free speech when it does not suit them. Why couldn’t they have expressed disapproval of other Islamic priests asking for Rushdie’s heads? If they claim to “represent” a section as large as Indian Muslims (I honestly don’t think Indian Muslims need anyone to represent themselves) then they should also behave in a responsible manner, in accordance with the principles of free speech which are the hallmarks of a a democracy. If only Deoband had said that they disagreed with Rushdie’s writings, but they would not ask for his rights of speech and movement to be restricted, and that they deplore those who ask for him to be killed, their prestige would be heightened, and they would have shown themselves to be far more matured than the MNS Shivsena goons. With what they have actually done in this case, they don’t seem to be that much better than the latter.


  22. Ambedkar had very “Realpolitik” views on Muslims, as evident in his book ‘Pakistan or the Partition of India’. But that doesn’t delegitimise his attitude. It simply raises critical questions. Even Gandhi, despite his ethical gestures towards Muslims, indulged in tricky, political manoeuvres with the leaders of the community. But that is old story.
    I don’t think the writer here has equated the fatwa with terrorism. But no “scholar” can issue even mild fatwas without proving a “scholarly” engagement with a book he decries in public. This isn’t a “liberal” expectation of any scholar – this is an old standard of the minimal proof of scholarly engagement. Has the Muslim scholar done that in this case? The hypocrisies of the liberal middle-class – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – who organise, participate and visit the Jaipur Literary Festival doesn’t absolve religious conservatives of their irresponsibilities.
    Mr. Mel’s attack on the narrow binary of liberal and fundamentalist Muslims, supposedly displayed by the writer, ends up giving empty anti-liberal arguments. There is a total confusion of issues. For example, the important distinction between the question of “demand” and the question of “right” has been totally obfuscated.
    There are of course multiple fundamentalisms in this country, and one needs to comparatively analyse that symptom rather than look at them vis-a-vis the majority-minority framework alone. Or by crazily going after a very diverse category of people termed “Indian liberals”. Intellectual fervour also needs an amount of intellectual sanity.



    Ambedkar had very “Realpolitik” views on Muslims, as evident in his book ‘Pakistan or the Partition of India’. But that doesn’t delegitimise his attitude. It simply raises critical questions. Even Gandhi, despite his ethical gestures towards Muslims, indulged in tricky, political manoeuvres with the leaders of the community. But that is old story.
    I don’t think the writer here has equated the fatwa with terrorism. But no “scholar” can issue even mild fatwas without proving a “scholarly” engagement with a book he decries in public. This isn’t a “liberal” expectation of any scholar – this is an old standard of the minimal proof of scholarly engagement. Has the Muslim scholar done that in this case? The hypocrisies of the liberal middle-class – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – among those who organise and participate in the Jaipur Literary Festival doesn’t absolve religious conservatives of their irresponsibilities.
    Mr. Mel’s attack on the narrow binary of liberal and fundamentalist Muslims, supposedly displayed by the writer, ends up giving empty anti-liberal arguments. There is a total confusion of issues. For example, the important distinction between the question of “demand” and the question of “right” has been totally obfuscated.
    There are of course multiple fundamentalisms in this country, and one needs to comparatively analyse that symptom rather than look at them vis-a-vis the majority-minority framework alone. Or by crazily going after a very diverse category of people termed “Indian liberals”. Intellectual fervour also needs an amount of intellectual sanity.


  24. The discussion is going well. almost every body has made their points well No one in fact has supported the ban. So no debate here. Some voice condemning Rushdie might have augured well for a heated debate. I, in fact, do not want to add any point excepting telling that Rushdie is probably one of the three best living novelist / writer in the world. o we all rather should feel proud and that is what Govt. should also declare showing some courage. Leaving aside opinion- support/oppose – aside every one should at least agree that he is phenomenon as a writer This is my message & request to all


    1. Looking at those reactions, it seems that those who say Islam is a religion of “peace and tolerance” must be really living in an alternate universe!


  25. The freedom of expression we enjoy is very specifically limited to certain contexts. This is one reason why the arguments about freedom of expression, which liberals frequently put forward in order to defend The Satanic Verses, are both ill-considered and, ultimately, dangerous.

    Every programme that we watch on television has been vetted by guardians of public decency; where every film we see has been censored, and where the licence we extend to ‘art’ encourages us to forget that every ‘non-artistic’ picture ever published or displayed is subject to rigorous obscenity laws.

    These laws express, in their selective prohibitions and permissions, a seemingly profound antipathy to sexual love and a deep and almost insane horror of some of the most ordinary parts of the human body, particularly when these are conjoined in some of the most ordinary ways.

    Not only this, but in Britain, the very country which holds itself up as a model of the ‘free’ society, a law has recently been passed in which civil servants have been deprived of one of the most important civil liberties which they had previously enjoyed under the law – the freedom to place the demands of conscience above the demands of their government.

    If we are to have any hope of unravelling the terrible problems which have been brought to the surface of the liberal conscience by the publication of The Satanic Verses, we need first of all to recognise, however painful this may be, that we do not live in a free society, and that we do not generally enjoy freedom of expression.

    Secondly we need to recognise that democracy itself is not synonymous with liberty and that in some very important respects it is antipathetic to liberty.

    For democracies are not built on accumulated layers of freedom; they are built upon the rule of law, which in its turn consists in the selective deprivation of freedom.

    Mr Chidambarams statement is political but it may cost him his MP seat in his constituency where the number of minority voters number some 200,000


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s