Two of the biggest impacts of the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini declared on Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses 25 years ago this Friday were the chill it cast on authors who might wish to take on controversial subjects in future, and the disease of competitive intolerance that it spread among people belonging to other religions and interest groups—why couldn’t they get something banned, or disappear, from the public space? And that phenomenon manifested in all its glory earlier this week, when Penguin India, ironically the publisher of Rushdie at that time, decided to withdraw and pulp the remaining copies of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.
When Rushdie was launching his memoir Joseph Anton at a bookstore in downtown New York in 2011, someone from the audience asked him—knowing what he knew now about the reaction that the publication of The Satanic Verses had evoked, would he still write the novel today? Rushdie reflected momentarily over the question, and said it wasn’t an easy question to answer. He had written the novel at a particular time, not knowing what was to follow. He did not choose to live the life that followed. Knowing Rushdie’s work and commitment to free expression, I wasn’t surprised when he told me, when I asked him about it earlier this week, that he hoped and believed he would write the same book today.
So would Doniger, who developed an abiding interest in Hinduism decades ago. But in the next edition of her book, she might scrutinize more what happened to some followers of Hinduism that they abandoned the faith’s proclaimed tenets of tolerance, and embraced the intolerant strains of other faiths, compared to which their own faith, they claimed, was superior. Or at least different from the monotheistic religions where notions like blasphemy were tossed around to silence opponents. That is a political question, and the ease with which the Indian state acquiesced to the loud mobs that shout “we are offended!” has only made it easier for obscure groups to turn to courts. And these courts, all too willingly, admit petitions drawn from Victorian-era sections of the penal code, such as 153A and 295A, which give a licence to anyone to complain that his or her feelings are hurt, that communal harmony may get disrupted, that hatred is being incited.
But no book razed a mosque; no books entered a railway station or five-star hotels and killed people; no book blew up crowded bazaars; no book looked the other way when crowds extracted revenge on other communities over real or imagined wrongs. People did that; and those people have rarely been brought to courts to face charges. Instead, the author is asked to narrow her imagination, or to swallow his words. This is the infantilization of India.
Rushdie may indeed write the same novel today, and continue to stir our imagination and provoke our minds with inspiring fiction, and Doniger may reflect more deeply on Hindu myths, traditions, customs, and philosophy, and reward her readers with her profound thinking. It is difficult to know if publishers will stand up to the test that the mob represents. In the past few years, under the threat of litigation, violence from vigilantes, or perceived insults, the number of books withdrawn from circulation, or not distributed in India at all, has grown disturbingly large.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned was published without one chapter; my Mint colleague Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s book on the Sahara group faces a stay order and a lawsuit; Bloomsbury has withdrawn Jitender Bhargava’s book on Air India; the former Left front government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasrin’s Dwikhandito; Narendra Modi’s administration banned Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (a court later lifted the ban) and Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi; and Sonia Gandhi’s lawyers have threatened to sue if Javier Moro’s novelized version of her life, The Red Saree, is released in India. This is only a small sample, but shows that no political party is immune from the charge of being hostile to books it doesn’t like, and none is committed to unbridled freedom of expression.
This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind. We are clearly not there yet, but the dystopian scenario is not far when we live in a society where books become the objects of the décor of an apartment, chosen because of their spines match the colour scheme on the wall; where books are designed to fit the size of a modern coffee table; where they contain recipes to feed the body; where the stock tips in the book promise to make us rich; where the hagiographies of powerful men and women tell fairytales, and create new icons for a mercantilist, unthinking nation; where textbooks narrate the version of history that the ruler approves. Into that arid hell, as Tagore would rue, India has woken.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-