Rushdie Silenced: The Satanic Verses Revisited

Protests Against Rushdie in Jaipur during Literary Festival
The Jaipur Literary Festival ended in a bizarre literary flashback to the 90's when the political world was shaken by debates over a fatwa, there were bombings of bookstores in the US and the UK, stabbings of translators in three different countries, banning of books in sixteen countries around the world, and an author was exiled and forced into hiding under heavy security for nine years.  I had thought the furor over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses had calmed after the issuer of his fatwa, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, died, and diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran, which had broken over the fatwa controversy, were restored.  In recent years Rushdie has traveled to India with his family and even appeared at the Jaipur Literary Festival four years ago.  Not this year.

Rushdie was scheduled to appear at this year's literary festival in Jaipur to discuss Midnight's Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, and its upcoming adaptation by Deepa Mehta to the screen.  His flight was cancelled, then his video link appearance was pulled.  Rushdie was warned against a physical appearance at the conference by the Rajasthan government, who revealed that a Bombay mafia don had hired to two hit men to assassinate Rushdie at the conference.  Rushdie worked his underground contacts; apparently no one has heard of this supposed don or his hit men, and all officials in the Rajasthan government now refuse to associate themselves with the supposed intelligence.  As a precaution Rushdie planned a virtual appearance, which was cancelled at the last minute by conference organizers due to crowds marching to the festival's venue who planned to join protesters within the conference crowd threatening violence.  In opposition four authors at the festival read from The Satanic Verses; complaints were filed against them with the police and they were asked to leave the festival.

Organizers Call Off Rushdie's Video Conference
Why the sudden uproar over a book published twenty-three years ago?  Rushdie  believes it's an attempt to turn out the Muslim vote in upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh.  In an interview with Barkha Dutt, Rushdie explains "now I find an India in which religious extremists can prevent free expression of ideas at a literary festival, in which the politicians are too, let's say, in bed with those groups to wish to oppose them for narrow electoral reasons."  Rushdie clearly places the blame for the incident at the feet of the Maulvis, extremist Muslim leaders who incite their followers.  "The vast majority of Indian Muslims really, frankly, don't give a damn whether I come or go."

The Book Itself
After all these years, is it really worth fabricated intelligence about mafia hit men?  The Satanic Verses is an undeniably provocative book.  Rushdie names his main character a derogatory word for Muhammad that dates from the Crusades, gives prostitutes the names of Muhammad's wives, implies Muhammad believed in three pre-Islamic Meccan goddesses, and challenges the veracity of Muhammad's revelation, positing that Muhammad's scribe changed verses of the Quran without Muhammad noticing, "So there I was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language.  But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God's own Messenger, then what did that mean?" (380).  One can't throw together that sort of blasphemous lineup and not have some inkling about inciting some serious reactions.  To this day The Satanic Verses remains Viking Penguin's best selling book of all time, and Rushdie earned $2 million in the first year of publication.  

Rushdie at Previous Jaipur Literary Festival
But what's the true impact of public censorship of controversial writers in India?  Anjay Roy says, "the government's move presupposes the Muslim community's disposition towards violence.  What is more dangerous, it could be interpreted as an attitude of cowering before the slightest threat."  Too many years of studying Hindu extremism in India leads me to believe the "Muslim community's disposition towards violence" is only as threatening as the disposition, and sometimes direct state sponsorship, of Hindu nationalism towards violence in India.  

Painting by M.F. Hussain
Provocation is generally not the end goal of artistic expression, although sometimes it's a necessary corollary.  But violence and threatened violence against art?  The recent death of M.F. Hussain in exile, driven out of India due to protest over his representations of Hindu deities, is yet another example of artistic censorship.  I doubt that those who protested against M.F. Hussain had any understanding of his creative process, just as I sincerely doubt that any of the protesters who convened on the Jaipur Literary Festival had ever read The Satanic Verses (a complicated book that left me scratching my head at points).  Provocation is part of artistic statement, and protest is part of a useful artistic dialogue in society.  But violence?  These are just words on a page, colors on a canvas.  It's only the hatred and fear of the viewer that gives them meaning and power.