Revisiting memories of anti-Rushdie riots in his native Bombay 33 years ago

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

It is interesting how memory works. On hearing about the terrible stabbing attack on Salman Rushdie exactly a week ago, my mind instantly traveled back to February 24, 1989* when rioting broke out in Bombay against his book ‘The Satanic Verses’.

The riot occurred barely 10 days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, essentially offering a supari (in the Bombay underworld’s parlance) on his head. Supari, incidentally, is like a contract for killing someone.

Khomeini offered a generous bounty then which had grown to $3.3 million as of 2012. Although the fatwa has seemingly lost much of its momentum after over three decades of its issuance, going by what happened to Rushdie, its simmering lethality has not waned at all.

To India’s shame and that of its then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the country was the first to ban ‘The Satanic Verses’ even before Khomeini got to it. I remember that no one had read a word of it and yet so many were outraged by its content. India banned it in late 1988 on the ground that it posed a serious law and order threat in a country where Muslims lived in such large numbers. In fact, nearly three and half decades later, Natwar Singh, who was one of the most prominent members of Gandhi’s Congress Party then, has been quoted as unapologetically defending the decision to ban after the Rushdie attack.

“I don’t think it (the decision to ban the book) was wrong because you see it had led to law and order problems, particularly in Kashmir. In other parts of India also there was disquiet,” Singh was quoted by the Press Trust of India (PTI) as saying.

“Rajiv Gandhi asked me what should be done. I said, ‘all my life I have been totally opposed to banning books but when it comes to law and order even a book of a great writer like Rushdie should be banned’,” Singh, now 91, has said.

Interestingly, New Delhi’s book ban prompted many in Islamic countries, particularly in Pakistan, to cite India’s decision to demand similar actions in their own countries. The ban in India set off a kind of competition among the Islamic world to top each other’s outrage. Tehran’s fatwa came after that.

It is not my case that Khomeini took a cue from Gandhi’s decision and escalated it to utterly and characteristically inhumane point, but the chronology of those days is instructive. Perhaps the logic was that if India, a secular, liberal democracy thought it proper to ban the book, Iran with its violent theocracy ought to have taken its rejection several steps forward.

I was on the scene when riots broke out that February day in Bombay in 1989. The rioters seemed to have free floating rage at everything. That day they found a plum target in ‘The Satanic Verses’, a book that they had not even seen, let alone read. I remember one irate young man told me in the midst of the rioting, punning on the title, “Yeh Rushdie khud shaitan hai.” (Rushdie is a Satan himself.) I asked him whether he knew for a fact that the book was offensive to Islam and if that was a good enough reason to ban it. He said no but added that he was following what Syed Abdullah Bukhari, the chief cleric at the New Delhi’s largest mosque Jama Masjid, had said while calling for its ban. At that point even Bukhari had not read the book. It was thought by many that merely holding it would be blasphemous.

If you think those were absurd times, they are perhaps even worse now as evident in Rushdie’s stabbing allegedly by the 24-year-old suspected assailant, identified as Hadi Matar, a resident Fairview, New Jersey, who seems to harbor sympathies for Iran generally and the notorious Iranian Republican Guard particularly going by media reports. If all that is true, then the stabbing in a sense completes the vicious circle whose first point drawn by Khomeini thirty-three years ago. It goes to show that ideas, especially violent religious ones, never really die. Of course, so far there is nothing to suggest that the alleged assailant was motivated by the fatwa issued a decade before he was born or, for that matter, that the attack was triggered by anything so specific.