The controversy regarding "The Satanic Verses" has returned to its country of origin, India.
Few of us will forget the shock at hearing news about a fatwa, a death sentence, pronounced on Salman Rushdie by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back in February 1989, forcing him to live under police protection for many years. Nor the violence that followed at public rallies in the West, book burnings, bookstore fire bombings and riots. Some individuals associated with translating and publishing the book were attacked at the time, seriously injured and one person even killed.
Now, 23 years later, the book is still inciting angry conflict.
Although Rushdie has been visiting India without incident for many years and spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2007 (Jaipur is the capital city of the state Rajasthan), when Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, vice-chancellor of Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband, heard Rushdie was planning to visit this year’s festival, he launched a protest. This protest led to the government of Rajasthan declining to guarantee Rushdie’s safety.
As a result, the festival directors asked Rushdie to delay his arrival. It was reported that they'd been given documents by the Rajasthan government, originating from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which apparently contained names of three alleged underworld assassins who were on their way to Jaipur from Mumbai [Bombay] with orders to murder Rushdie. Mumbai police, however, deny this.
There's the first discrepancy.
In the 22 January article in The Hindu, co-Director of the Jaipur Literature Festival author William Dalrymple is quoted as saying “It was on the basis of this information that Salman decided not to come.” However, in an article in The Observer dated 29 January and based on an interview Nick Cohen had with Salman Rushdie, he says that India forced Rushdie to cancel his appearance at the festival. “The [Indian] authorities said his physical presence or even an address via video link might lead to assassination attempts, riots, injuries and deaths.”
And there’s the second discrepancy... but it’s still not the end of the story.
Angry, and wanting to show their support for Salman Rushdie, two authors attending the Festival, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar, decided to make a statement and read aloud two, inoffensive passages containing no religious content, from "The Satanic Verses". Meanwhile, completely independently, two other writers at the Festival, Ruchir Joshi, and Jeet Thayil, also read from The Satanic Verses.
This caused a furore. The Jaipur Police Commissioner arrived, who, after interviewing the four authors, according to Kunzru, was reassured that no law had been broken. Next the Festival organisers asked them to sign a statement saying that the Festival was not responsible for their actions and then they all left Rajasthan.
In The Hindu’s article, Dalrymple says that reading from a banned book is illegal although in a 30 January article in SF Gate, home of the San Francisco Chronicle, Pankaj Mishra reports “the Festival’s organisers, [who] believed - wrongly, it turns out - that reading from a banned book was illegal...” and Kunzru himself says “I believed (and continue to believe) that I was not breaking the law...”
And that’s the third discrepancy.
Some writers at the Festival have criticised the organisers for not supporting the four authors involved - and I think they have a valid point. One can't help but wonder how much having international names like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Ondaatje and Tom Stoppard at the Festival influenced any decisions they had to make.
J M Leitch is author of The Zul Enigma