Rushdie attack: Today’s resounding silence echoes Parliament’s mute stance over the years on banning Satanic Verses

At a time when any question aroused a loud and partisan resentment, the attack on writer Salman Rushdie saw a rare consensus in the political establishment: an evasive silence.

Apart from a few voices, the the political class has largely refrained from condemning the serious aggression.

Addressing a press conference in Bengaluru on Saturday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, when asked about the attack, said: ‘I have also read about it… I think it is obviously something that the whole world noted and any attack like this obviously the whole world reacted to it.

Among the few who condemned the assault were CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, Congressman Shashi Tharoor; his party colleague and Congress media chief Pawan Khera; and Shiv Sena’s Priyanka Chaturvedi.

This is not surprising given the record of political discourse on this issue.

Since the government of Rajiv Gandhi banned satanic verses in 1988 – the first country to do so – parliamentary debates show that the ban was cited more to score political points than to argue for the protection of free speech.

Indeed, Rushdie himself, in a 1990 essay, wrote that “the the demand to ban the book was a power play to demonstrate the strength of the Muslim votethat Congress has traditionally relied on and could not afford to lose.

deny that to The Indian ExpressNatwar Singh, who was Minister of State for External Affairs in the Rajiv government, said on Saturday that the ban was due to the “law and order situation” and had nothing to do with “placing down” a community.

However, even the BJP, whose AB Vajpayee-led government had given Rushdie a visa to visit India for the first time more than a decade after the ban, avoided taking a clear stance on the cancellation of the ban.

Immediately after the ban, some members of Congress praised the government. In March 1989, Congressman Zainul Basher thanked the then Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Lok Sabha for taking the initiative to ban the book.

“…Indonesia and Bangladesh have not yet banned this book, but we were about to ban this book in our country. Words fail to appreciate this gesture from the Indian government,” he said.

Author Salman Rushdie is treated by emergency personnel after being stabbed on stage before his scheduled speech at the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York. (Reuters)

For the BJP, the ban was an example of what it called the “double standard” of Congress government.

On August 17, 1993, BJP member BL Sharma (Prem) pointed to a poster put up by NGO Sahmat at an exhibition in Ayodhya. Vajpayee criticized the then PV Narasimha Rao government for allowing such a poster. Then LK Advani then took over.

“…this question of secularism…one of the things that really pollutes her, bothers her, is the approach of double standards. You can’t have a double standard about this poster and a different standard about Salman Rushdie’s book. After all, Salman Rushdie’s book hurts the feelings of some sections. I can say I disagree with it, but this government went so far as to ban it without even reading it,” Advani said.

“It’s the only democratic country in the world, mind you, where this book has been banned. I disapprove of the book, but at the same time you have a standard for this and another standard for Sahmat and that Sahmat who publishes this objectionable poster about which a reference was made receives the subsidy from the government. On the one hand, the government grants them subsidies and, on the other hand, it grants them protection. This double standard will not be allowed. There is resentment among people against that,” he said.

In 1999, the question resurfaced in the context of the granting of a visa to Rushdie.

In Lok Sabha on February 24, 1999, E Ahamed, the Muslim League MP, said he wanted to express the deep resentment of the Muslim community in India at the government’s decision to grant Rushdie a visa. . “He hasn’t regretted it so far, and it has hurt the feelings of Muslims across the country and around the world…Such a man should not be welcome on the soil of this country,” did he declare.

Mohan Singh of the Samajwadi party saw a “sinister” purpose behind the move. “The government is trying to create communal riots in the country in order to gain political advantage. I oppose this intention of the government and I appeal to the government…that the reason Rushdie got a visa is totally wrong.

Police at the location where protests broke out in Mumbai against Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in 1989. (Express Archive)

He said that Rushdie not only commented on the Prophet but also on Hindu gods and goddesses. “Therefore, it is not only a question of Muslim society, but Rushdie’s ideology on Hindu society also affects the feelings of Hindu society. Hence, the Indian government is trying hard to plunge India into the heat of communal riots by inviting such a person as a guest.

Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav intervened. “Salman Rushdie’s book has been banned and a plot is underway to riot by allowing him to come here,” Mulayam said. “This government issued a visa to Salman Rushdle for insulting the Muslim community,” Lalu added.

Congressman Ajit Jogi also urged the government to “reconsider its decision on issuing a visa to Salman Rushdie as his ideology is against all religious groups in the country”.

Even in November 2015, Rushdie appeared during a Lok Sabha discussion on incidents of intolerance.

Against the onslaught of the opposition, BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi said, “I was going through the files and in the files I came across comments about Salman Rushdie. Some words have been spoken about Salman Rushdie. His book was banned in the 80s. Who was in power then, I don’t need to say. In 2012, Rushdie was not even allowed to participate in a video conference in Jaipur.

“So soon after the diplomatic embarrassment of Nupur Sharma and the murder of the tailor in Rajasthan, everyone prefers to play it safe,” said a senior non-Congress opposition official. “The fact is that Salman Rushdie has called out to all of us across parties… be it the Congress or the BJP. We are disturbed by the attack, but we don’t know how a public statement will go. Let us quietly pray for his recovery.

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