Mr. Salman Rushdie, the author of “The Satanic Verses”, characterised the official ban on the import and reading of his novel in India as “an act of colossal illiberalism, great philistinism” and expressed the hope that the Government of India would act speedily “at a very high level” to reverse the decision. He remarked that the official spokesman’s explanation that the ban was “a preemptive step” to avoid “misrepresentation” of passages in the novel “for political purposes” amounted to saying that “because the book might become the victim of unscrupulous elements in India, it is the book that must be punished.”
Observing that “the energy in Indian politics, tragically, is now in these religious extremist movements, whether Muslim or Hindu or whatever,” Mr. Rushdie said “the general response here has been a kind of horror that such a thing could happen in India.” He added: “Now in a situation where Pakistan has made no noises and India has banned the book, this feels like an upside down world.”
The well-known writer, whose 547-page novel is on the short list for the Booker Prize, expressed his gratitude to newspapers and various people in India who have condemned the ban and asked that it be revoked immediately.
He said that if the Government of India, seeing it had made a mistake, reversed its decision, it would be “respected” and even “applauded” by the world.
Mr. Rushdie made these observations from his home in London in a telephonic interview to The Hindu on Oct 09, 1988:
N. Ram: How do you read the official attitude behind the ban, taking into account the official spokesman’s latest explanation that it was “a preemptive step” to avoid misrepresentation of your novel “for political purposes”?
Salman Rushdie: It seems to me to be a case of making the likely victim of an attack responsible for the attack. It seems they’re saying that because the book might become the victim of unscrupulous elements in India, it is the book that must be punished. My book is being put in jail, so to speak, as a protective measure for things that may be done to K. If they wish to make a preemptive strike, why not make it against the people who may be making the distortions?
It seems to me an act of colossal illiberalism, great philistinism and, I think, great stupidity. I think it is very ill-advised. It is already getting India a very bad press outside India. We have organisations such as International Pen and the Index on Censorship joining in an attack on the Indian Government. We have major writers here joining in an attack on the Indian Government. This is no way for a democracy to conduct itself -; not if it wishes to be seen in the world’s eyes as a free society.
Q: Mr. Rushdie, you have had much experience with people in India and this includes experience with official and political attitudes. You have had an interaction with India which is very substantive. Would you say this marks a qualitative change of some kind? Have you come across anything of this kind before?
A: The answer is no, I have not come across anything of this sort before and I do
believe that it does mark a change, a substantive change. In two dimensions. I think, first of all, it indicates a colossal weakness of vision on the part of the Indian Government and a corresponding growth in the power of religious groups to have their way in India. As you know, I was something of an opponent of Mrs. Gandhi, but I cannot imagine that this would have happened under Mrs. Gandhi’s rule. It seems to me that we now have a situation in India in which any two or three religious people can get their will just by saying so! That speaks for the vacuum at the Centre and what it shows is that the energy in Indian politics, tragically, is now in these religious extremist movements, whether Muslim or Hindu or whatever.
Q: You are aware, Mr. Rushdie, that a number of people, including newspapers, in India have condemned the ban. We also learn that from outside India, organisations of writers and several well-known writers like Tom Stoppard, Kingsley Amis and Harold Pinter have protested publicly and sent telegrams to the Indian Prime Minister asking that the ban on a serious work of literature be lifted. What has been your reading of the general reaction or response ?
A: I am very grateful for your support. I am delighted to have the support of these very distinguished writers and all I can say
is that they won’t be the only ones. Because the general response here has been a kind of horror that such a thing could happen in India! Let me say that if such a thing had happened in, for example, Pakistan, people might have been annoyed but in a way they would have expected it more. Now in a situation where Pakistan has made no noises and India has banned the book, this feels like an upside down world.
Q: Has any Indian official or politician been in touch with you on this matter?
Q: Moving on to another area, if I may.....could you tell us something about your work that led to this book and the idea behind “The Satanic Verses”? How long have you been working on it, for example?
A: Well, I have been working on the book more or less for the last five years. But in another sense, the genesis of the book is even older than that. Because some of the information relating to the early history of Islam was stuff that I studied when I was studying history at University, at Cambridge. The incident which gives the novel its title, a historical incident which you will find in many books, biographies of the Prophet and so forth, was an incident that I first heard about twenty years ago, when I was studying history. And since then, I have been thinking about these matters. One of the reasons why, in the novel, I have highly fictionalised the story -; why I have not called the Prophet Mohammed, why the city is not Mecca but a fictional and highly fabulated city -; is precisely that I did not want to get into a dispute about whether this was historical or not. I wrote a fiction about a prophet similar to Mohammed. Now to have this fiction treated as if it was absolute fact and then called blasphemous is an indication of how naive the attack is. We are not here talking about some kind of work of scholarship or history. We are talking about narrative fiction which uses, as its starting point, certain historical events. If we are to be now told that in India a fictional discussion of the theme of religion is no longer to be permitted because it offends certain sentiments, then we have arrived at a very, very extreme condition.
Q: What is the way out?
A: What is the way out of the situation?
A Well. I think the way out is very simple. Since I have had no official contact with the Government, I have no way of knowing who exactly has made this decision. But whoever has made it is also capable of reversing it or being overruled. I think if the Indian Government, at a very high level, was to act very speedily to reverse this decision, they would be respected for doing so. I think when people see they have made a mistake and act to rectify it, one must applaud them. And I think that the world would applaud such a decision. I can only hope that the Indian Government will feel able to reverse it very fast.