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October 5, 1988: When Rajiv Gandhi-led India became the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, aided by Fareed Zakaria’s father

Rushdie's stabbing has once again brought the focus back on Satanic Verses, the book that got Rushdie in so much trouble that he had to live fearing for his life for the past 33 years

Noted novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly ahead of a speaking event in Chautauqua, New York, on Friday, August 13, 2022. Rushdie was always living on borrowed time once Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him in February 1989. However, when it came to banning Satanic Verses, India was months ahead of Iran, banning the book in October 1988 much before any other country.

Rushdie was ironically going to discuss the topic, “America’s role as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression”, before he was stabbed in America for his writings from over 3 decades back.

Rushdie’s stabbing has once again brought the focus back on Satanic Verses, the book that got Rushdie in so much trouble that he had to live fearing for his life for the past 33 years, ever since Iran issued a fatwa in his name in February 1989. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie on February 14 that year, but interestingly, they were not the first country to get upset over the Satanic Verses and ban it, that honour belongs to India.

Indian Prime Minister at the time, Rajiv Gandhi, had already shown his willingness to bow down to Islamists in the Shah Bano case in 1985, and he did it again by leading the world in banning Satanic Verses. Interestingly, India never banned the book outright, instead, they imposed the ban through Finance Ministry, imposing a ban on the import of the book under the Customs act.

The Congress government even imposed a travel ban on Salman Rushdie, barring him from coming to India. The ban was eventually lifted by the Vajpayee government in 1999, 11 years later.

The book was first published in Britain on 26th September 1988, by banning its import within 10 days, India effectively banned the book. However, some copies had already found their way to India, but after looking at the fate of Nupur Sharma supporters, we can well understand why nobody is going to come out and admit to having a copy.

The call for a ban on the book was led by Congress MPs Syed Shahabuddin and Khursheed Alam Khan (father of Salman Khursheed). The book was banned after Shahabuddin filed a petition against it claiming that it is a threat to public order. Rafiq Zakaria, the father of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, was also at the forefront of calling for a ban on Rushdie’s book.

A weak Prime Minister like Rajiv Gandhi did what was expected of him, bowed to the pressure from his party’s Muslim MPs, and banned the book, starting a fire which is evidently burning till today. Following the ban by India, the book was banned in Sudan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.

Even though Britain, where the book was first published, saw large-scale protests and book burnings, Margaret Thatcher government refused to ban the book. The protests soon spread to perpetually offended Pakistan, and even America saw several protests against the book.

With more and more countries seeing the protests against the book, Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, jumped into the controversy and issued his fatwa. On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie’s life and his publishers. He never gave any reason for the fatwa on Rushdie’s head but Iran soon announced $6 Million reward on Rushdie’s head.

With no expiry dates on fatwas, that remains valid to date, and may well have inspired the attacker who stabbed Rushdie in the neck last night. The spark provided by Rajiv Gandhi in October 1988 when he led the world in banning Satanic Verses, continues to fuel the fire of intolerance that burns till today.

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OpIndia Staff
OpIndia Staffhttps://www.opindia.com
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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