Salman Rushdie, who has visited India several times in the past decade, may have been surprised when the vice-chancellor of Islamic school Darul Uloom Deoband, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, demanded that he be denied a visa for his appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. He may have been more surprised because he doesn’t need a visa to visit the country of his birth.
But even as the government announced that he was free to attend the festival, the police stepped up security and the festival organisers held everyone in suspense about whether the Booker Prize winner would turn up, Rushdie issued a statement saying he had chosen not to come to India. He cited a police intelligence warning that assassins may have been hired to eliminate him.
But why are people against Rushdie’s scheduled visit? The opposition is related to his 1988 work The Satanic Verses which caused the Iranian regime to issue a fatwa for his death.
Why is The Satanic Verses Controversial?
The novel is an account of the life of Prophet Muhammad, through the imagining of an Indian film star in London. The title of the novel makes a reference to lines that had a context in Islamic history.
According to Islamic scholars, Prophet Muhammad advocated the worship of a single God, and this didn’t go down well with his own tribe, the Quraysh, who, like the rest of the people of the Arab peninsula, worshipped several deities. The Quraysh shut Muhammad’s people out of Mecca. As the feud appeared to be heading towards the banishment of Muhammad, a compromise was proposed. Muhammad said he had heard a revelation that three goddesses from the Quraysh’s Pantheon could be worshipped. The deal was that he must worship them to broker peace. And so Muhammad is believed to have said:
“Have you thought on Al-Lat and Al-Uzza, and on Manat, the third other?”
Along with this, he is also believed to have said, “These are the exalted birds whose intercession is approved.”
These would become known as ‘the Birds Verses’ in Arabic, when Muhammad withdrew them, saying the Devil and not God had sent him the ‘revelations’, before peace could be brokered. Eventually he and his people would defeat the Quraysh tribe at war. These verses were called ‘the Satanic Verses’ in the West.
This story is recast in a different manner in the novel, and was among several things that some Muslims considered blasphemy. The issues considered provocative in the book include the names of the characters, which draw from specific references in Islam.
In 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie, as well as the editors and publishers of the novel. This was withdrawn by the moderate leader President Mohammad Khatami in 1998 — he said the government of Iran no longer supported the idea of killing Rushdie, but would not hinder it either.
In the first few months following the issuance of the fatwa, Rushdie’s family is said to have moved once every three days. Several attacks occurred on bookstores in the US and UK stocking the novel. Bomb blasts were planned, and riots occurred in Turkey and Bombay. Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, was killed, while Italian translator Ettore Capriolo and Turkish translator Aziz Nesin both survived assassination attempts, as did Norwegian publisher William Nygaard.
Rushdie reacted by “apologising” through a diplomatic statement:
“I profoundly regret the distress that this publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.”
Iran refused to accept the apology.
Rushdie then announced “I want to reclaim my life” and asked his publishers not to bring out paperback editions of the book, nor to commission further translations of it.
How did the Current Controversy Play Out?
On January 9, 2012, the Darul Uloom demanded that the Indian government deny Rushdie a visa to visit India. As the media latched onto the story, Rushdie tweeted that he did not need permission to visit India, saying, “Re: my Indian visit, for the record, I don’t need a visa.”
Following the Darul Uloom’s call, several Muslim organisations organised protests against Rushdie’s appearance at the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival.
While the government initially said Rushdie was free to visit, there were rumours by January 12 that the Rajasthan State government had suggested that the Centre advise the writer against the visit, following concerns about law and order.
The organisers of the festival first spoke of space for free speech, and pointed out that Rushdie had attended several book events in India, and later said they “stood by (their) invitation”. India’s Twitterati came out in support of the writer and his scheduled visit.
On January 17, Nomani hinted at a conditional withdrawal of his opposition to Rushdie’s visit, asking for an apology from the author for “hurting Muslim sentiments.” As no reaction seemed forthcoming, the Central government asked Rajasthan and Delhi to make sure adequate security arrangements were made. Three-tier security was arranged at the venue of the festival, and guests were to be scanned at several entrances to the Diggi Palace, where the event is held. The festival organisers maintained that Rushdie’s visit had been postponed, but not cancelled.
The festival began with an air of suspense over whether Rushdie would, in fact, attend or not. Finally, on January 20, 2012, Salman Rushdie said he had cancelled his trip to India, following fears that he may be assassinated.
He said, “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to eliminate me. While I have some doubts as to the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances.” Later, he said on Twitter: “Very sad not to be at Jaipur. I was told Bombay mafia don issued weapons to 2 hitmen to ‘eliminate’, me. Will do a video link instead. Damn.”
How has the Festival Reacted?
On the opening day of the Jaipur Literature festival, author Hari Kunzru read out sections from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and writers Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Rushir Joshi tried to follow suit. However, the organisers clamped down on the session and requested that the excerpts not be read.
While most writers of literature expressed their support for Rushdie and stance against the ban, pulp fiction writer Chetan Bhagat said, “Let’s not make heroes out of those people who are banned”.
Booker prize winner Ben Okri was more ambivalent. He said the interpretation of the book had been affected by the fatwa issued over it, just as the reading of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye changed after John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman was found to have been influenced by it.
Protests heightened after the reading, with several Muslim clerics calling for the arrest of the writers involved, and security was bolstered further.