By Tarek Fatah
February 12, 2014
In 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 Bachao 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.”