25 years after New Delhi banned Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, another book, ‘The Hindus’ dies in India

“Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect,’ we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.”

Toronto Sun comment masthead

February 13, 2014

Tarek Fatah
The Toronto Sun

Satanic Verses & HindusIn February, 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on Salman Rushdie for insulting Islam and Prophet Mohammed in his novel The Satanic Verses, India earned the distinction of being the first country to ban the book.

As we near the 25th anniversary of the ban, India has done it again. This time, the book isn’t about Islam, but Hinduism.

Scores died in 1989 protesting a book they had never read. In Mumbai alone, at least 12 people were killed and 40 wounded when police fired at Muslims rioting against The Satanic Verses. There were deaths in Japan and Italy. The Norwegian publisher of the book was shot and left for dead outside his home in Oslo.

But throughout the ordeal, the book’s publisher, Penguin, stood by Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, refusing to withdraw the novel.

As the British author Kenan Malik recalls in his book Fatwa to Jihad, Peter Mayer, the then CEO of Penguin, stood firm in his defence of Rushdie, despite the death threats.

“I had letters delivered to me written in blood,” he tells Malik. “I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.”

Today, almost 25 years to the date of the Rushdie fatwa, Penguin, apparently, is different.

In a reported out of court settlement, Penguin has agreed to destroy all copies of a book by New York Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger, titled The Hindus: An Alternative History.

It wasn’t rioters in the streets who ensured the book was taken off Indian bookshelves, but lawyers in the Delhi High Court who achieved this embarrassment India will wear for all time.

No sooner had Doniger’s voluminous 800-page book appeared on the stands in 2009 than an attack on her scholarship and the book was launched in India.

Some of the critique was valid. The debate reflected the discomfort many Hindus feel about Americans and Europeans failing to understand their heritage.

But with Doniger, it was legal chill that led to the censorship of her book.

In 2010, the leader of a Hindu educational organization in New Delhi called the Shiksha Bacho Andolan, filed a lawsuit against Doniger and Penguin Group claiming her book “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus” and therefore breached section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

The fact the law invoked was enacted by the colonial British in 1860 to silence critics was of little concern to the plaintiffs.

The case dragged on until this week, when Penguin India apparently threw in the towel and surrendered in an embarrassing out-of-court settlement, requiring Penguin to destroy all copies of Doniger’s book within six months at its own expense.

In 2008, I experienced the wrath of Indian self-censorship when another publisher backed out of a contract to publish my book Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, citing fear of Muslims being offended.

It was a shock to me. The irony is that the same book was published in Islamic Pakistan, right next door.

As one author commenting on Penguin’s surrender said: “Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect,’ we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.”

13 comments for “25 years after New Delhi banned Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, another book, ‘The Hindus’ dies in India

  1. vidyadhara buddhiraju
    March 13, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    The loose assertion that freedom of speech is unlimited is obviously untrue. Rights exist because the society resolves to maintain them. Not because these rights are in a constitution or a divinely revealed book.

    What amounts to the society’s ability to protect is really a matter of cultural judgement. I am not getting into the content of the alleged book as of yet.

    What appears fair to one must be expected to militate against another’s opinion. That is why there are courts and legislatures, which hopefully are able to make this assessment with some correspondence to reality.

    On the other hand India is a reasonably free society. If Wendy so dearly wishes to have her voice heard, she must join the political process in India to claim her right to publish obscenity against the ramayana. If she pulls of the trick then you have her contribution to “free speech” in India.

    There have been other charlatans who got away with this sort of free speech for abusing Hindu legacy before. Not one has succeeded with this principle in the case of Islam however.

    If she fails in her heroic struggle, well she would have tried, like some other martyrs to the ignoble cause.

  2. October 12, 2014 at 1:59 PM

    There is a difference between GoI banning i.e. outlawing the customs import of Salmon Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ and the Penguins withdrawing circulation of ‘The Hindus’ as part of a compromise afraid of possible legal damages and costs that might be imposed on them. Both are not banned on merits. But whereas Rushdie’s book is certainly barred entry officially it is not so with the Hindus. Any person who buys it in England or US or any other country in the world can bring it here without any fear. Persons like me can publish it even – if the author permits. The pusillanimity of the Penguins and their cowering before a Hindu fanatic is revolting. Similarly any venturing publisher can publish Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses also here and it is not unlawful. Perhaps there will be great furore, certainly attacks from Muslim communalists and fatwas from Muslim clergy etc. and post-publication GoI may officially ‘ban’ that – however, I am not sure the Courts would endorse such ban. Also I don’t think either Salmon Rushdie or any person on his behalf challenged the ban on its customs import imposed by Rajiv Gandhi at any time in any court of law in India.

  3. October 12, 2014 at 2:19 PM

    @VidyadharaBuddhiraju – if he is a Telugu person [his name sounds like one] or knows Telugu well, he should be knowing there is a famous adage in Telugu: “Ramayanam Ranku, Bharatam Bonku” – meaning Ramayan is full of adulterous stories and Mahabharat of lies. So no need for Wendy Doniger to vouchsafe obscenity in Ramayan etc. that is already there and censured by millions of Telugu people who approvingly quote this adage. Also VB should know the book is not proscribed – it is just due to the pusillanimity of Penguins who for their own business interests withdrew it from circulation here. But he can buy a book abroad and bring here or even distribute here without any hassles of law.

    • Vidyadhara Buddhiraju
      October 26, 2015 at 8:14 AM

      Mallikarjuna Sharmaji,
      —-
      “Ramayanam Ranku, Bharatam Bonku” – meaning Ramayan is full of adulterous stories and Mahabharat of lies. So no need for Wendy Doniger to vouchsafe obscenity in Ramayan etc. that is already there and censured by millions of Telugu people who approvingly quote this adage.

      I am telugu speaking, but have never come across this one. If have no idea if such sentiments are endorsed by “millions” of telugus. Not everything said in telugu is known to “millions” of telugus.
      The question is at any rate quite different from this point.

      Is freedom of expression unlimited. Plainly not. Is a hindu entitled to complain about offense to his religious sensibilities? That is why there are courts and legal processes. Every citizen of India is entitled to seek restitution in a court of law. And the court is competent to decide whether such a contention may stand. And there is a very large body of precedent for such litigation.

      In recent months Aurangazeb Road in New Delhi was renamed upon similar claims, that such a name was offensive to the Hindus. Yes please import and distribute the book, within the limits of law, if you wish to do it as a demonstration of your right to free speech. I am not so wealthy to take up such demonstrations. I must pick my struggles according to my own judgment about what I can do best for my country and society.

  4. namita
    March 5, 2015 at 11:19 AM

    mr fatah, if anybody will make a nude portrait of your daughter will you appreciate and defend his right to speech?

    • Tarek S. Fatah
      March 5, 2015 at 2:42 PM

      My daughter is her own person. She is not my property. She is neither my slave nor my cattle. She has better sense to not pose nude and if she did pose nude for an artist or photographer, that would be her choice as an adult, irrespective of how I feel.

      Having said that, is this the best you could come up with as an argument to defend the banning of a book? Its pathetic.

    • Dr KKJ
      May 13, 2016 at 5:16 AM

      This is called hitting below the belt and uncalled for

      • Dr KKJ
        May 13, 2016 at 5:18 AM

        NAMITA being a lady I never expected this. Please don’t be personal. Lets have a healthy debate. Being a Hindu I am also hurt but will not abuse someone else to express my anger.

  5. Abhishek Singh
    December 16, 2015 at 3:04 PM

    The people, especially Hindus who think this book is portraying a wrong image of them and should be banned are idiots….I’ll buy my copy from wherever I can..

  6. vidhya
    May 15, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    Dear Tarek Sir

    I am hard core supporter to your writings. I still do not understand why are you defending the book The Hindu.

    Please read Dr. Rajiv Malhotra’s forces breaking India and you will have a more clarity on this book.

  7. August 18, 2016 at 5:59 AM

    I have read Doniger’s book “Siva: The erotic ascetic”. It is a hard read as she goes ad nauseum about a few things trying to prove Siva was a lecherous God, if God at all. It is a crap disguised as scholarship.

    Unlike some western scholars who do have a deep knowledge of India like Amaury de Riencourt in “Eye of Siva” or people like Francois Gautier who have spent years in India, Doniger is an armchair pseudo-intellectual who passes off as a scholar in the West.
    India is a better place without her books.

  8. August 18, 2016 at 6:01 AM

    BTW, Doniger’s book “Siva the erotic ascetic” is not banned in India. It should be. It is an utter trash.

  9. Jai
    September 7, 2016 at 12:47 PM

    when will we Indians get over the fact that west is always right, we tend to propagate when it is our favor and condemn when it is not. We are gracious enough when we find it convenient and abuse when it is not. high time we started thinking on our own. we are the worst hypocrites the world have seen. Just see the matrimonial pages for one.

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