Three men played a key role in 1988 when Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in India. Of the three, Rajiv Gandhi was blown away by a human assassin. The other two – Syed Shahabuddin, who mounted the campaign against the novel and the author – and Buta Singh, who was Gandhi’s infamous Home Minister – have lost relevance after having lived on political dole for years. In contrast, Rushdie remains a literary giant. Poetic justice? Maybe.
Four years prior to the banning of The Satanic Verses, the other Gandhi – Rajiv’s mother, Indira, dragged Rushdie to the Old Bailey. ‘The Widow’ alluded to in Midnight’s Children was incensed over allusions to her and the accusation of her younger son that she was somewhat responsible for the death of his father.
From available information, it does not appear that Rushdie and Indira Gandhi ever came face to face – the closest occasion was in 1982 when the author turned down an invite to lunch with Gandhi during her visit to London for the Festival of India. Maybe the legal charges would not have come up had the then 35-year-old writer turned out to humour the Indian Prime Minister instead of basking in Booker glory. But then why should he have turned out for lunch and add to the crowd of ‘jee-Madams’ that might have been rustled up by the Iron Lady? He had after all written fiction with a streak of biography and not the other way around!
Nonetheless, just three months after the judge ruled in Gandhi’s favour and got Rushdie to drop the 40-odd words of ‘pungent’ reference to her from all future editions of the novel, Indira passed into history – felled by the bullets of her bodyguards. For at least a couple of generations of Indians this was their first brush with political tragedy. But surely not for the midnight’s children.
However much one disagrees with what has happened in contemporary India over the past few days, no one will hope that these peculiar – and tragic – coincidences will continue to unfold.
Hope for this stems from a different setting. The ban in 1988 was preceded by imploding communal conflicts in Muzzaffarnagar and Aligarh and futile exchange of documents purportedly buttressing claims of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and sectarian Muslim organisations on the central dispute of that time – the Ayodhya imbroglio. The ban had come as a high point of a chain of events in the course of which the government alternately succumbed to communal elements in both majority and minority communities.
The recent chain of events clearly would not have taken place if election in Uttar Pradesh were not being held at this time. Rushdie after all, was at the Jaipur literary festival four years ago and at the India Today conclave last year. But then 2011 is not 1988 and Hindu backlash to the episode is unlikely to be as resounding as it was back then.
For this one may thank another person who again has passed into history – VP Singh – for dividing Indian politics into two phases: Pre-Mandal and Post-Mandal. Thankfully Indian writing in English does not as yet have a pre- and post-Rushdie phase!