India and Britain: 20 years on from a satanic storm (London
Dipankar De Sarkar
Eds: This column is the first in a series from our London
correspondent Dipankar De Sarkar, who has been reporting Britain
for Indian readers for over 20 years)
Aug 3 (IANS) It was Jan 14, 1989 and a book had just been
burnt in a city called Bradford. The book was "The Satanic
Verses", its author was Salman Rushdie and those who
did the burning were Muslims convinced that it blasphemed
among those who burnt the book and held up the smouldering
pages while posing for photographers had bothered to read
it. Yet their act - a throwback to medieval intolerance -
lit a spark that was to result in a global maelstrom and the
shocking persecution of a writer.
did not act in isolation - years before anyone had heard of
the Internet and email, these global protests began in India
(Rushdie's country of birth), were coordinated in London through
letters and fax machines, and claimed victims across the world.
before the book's planned publication in September 1988, the
journalist Khushwant Singh warned of "a lot of trouble"
if the book were to be published. Rushdie responded in an
interview: "It would be absurd to think that a book can
an election coming up, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi took
no chances and ordered the book banned in October - an action
that was described by The Hindu as "philistine"
and The Indian Express as "thought control."
circulars containing Urdu translations of what were claimed
to be excerpts from "The Satanic Verses" were sent
from India to Muslim leaders in Blackburn - like Bradford
an English city with a large Muslim population - who then
sent them on to mosque leaders in Bradford.
a month of protests across the world, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
of Iran ordered Rushdie's execution in February.
would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world
that the author of the book entitled 'The Satanic Verses',
which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition
to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers
who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death,"
said Khomeini's fatwa, which was read out on Radio Teheran
just before the 2 p.m. news Feb 19, 1989.
and his then wife Marianne Wiggins left their home in the
north London neighbourhood of Islington and went into hiding
under armed guard the same day.
he remained for the most of the following 10 years.
the events from Bradford, I found myself wandering into a
small Deobandi mosque, tucked away at the end of a cobbled
street in an area inhabited by many Kashmiris (from the part
run by Pakistan). A young mullah, recently arrived from Gujarat,
showed me around the place, which also doubled up as a madrasa
in the evenings.
did his students - girls in headscarves around the age of
10, sitting on the floor, reading the Koran - make of all
the protests, I wanted to know. Did they even know who Rushdie
free to ask them," suggested the mullah.
I've have heard of him," said a girl grimly. "He
is a bad man. They should chop off his hands."
late 1990, while still in hiding, Rushdie called me up in
London - for an interview arranged by an intermediary - in
a desperate attempt to reach out to moderate Muslim opinion
years on, much has changed. Somewhat ironically amid growing
acts of terrorism in the West and India, Rushdie has been
able to make public appearances in both places (although there
were the familiar noises once again last year when he was
awarded the British knighthood).
the recent past, Rushdie has made appearances at literature
festivals in India; seen his name romantically severed from
that of an Indian-American model and then linked to a 27-year-old
Bollywood starlet; and recently boasted of having created
a record by signing 1,000 books in 57 minutes.
Britain, the Labour government has tried to change both public
and official attitude toward Muslim concerns and "The
Satanic Verses" is commonplace on the shelves of bookstores.
Despite the 7/7 suicide bombings that killed 52 people in
2005, London remains a celebrated multicultural city and Britain
a country where moderate Muslim opinion has been encouraged
in Rushdie's beloved India, the mix of politics and religion
- the so-called vote bank politics - has made such change
more difficult to achieve. Expelled by Marxist leaders from
her adopted home of Kolkata after Muslim protests in November
last year, the writer Taslima Nasreen has been forced into
exile in Europe.
one cause for hope then is that extremists are increasingly
less able to snuff out writers such as Rushdie and Nasreen,
and chip away at the world's literary heritage.
Rushdie told a recent American audience: "I don't want
to dispute with Ayatollah Khomeini, but I will point out that
only one of us is dead. That thing they say about the pen
being mightier than the sword? Don't mess with novelists."
De Sarkar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)