Fighting Phantoms in India

Fighting Phantoms in India

When I first heard of Salman Rushdie I was at university. The Satanic Verses had set off a perfect storm in India and around the world. The book was banned in India following fiery protests by Muslims. Many died in Mumbai when police opened fire on angry protesters. Then came Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa sanctioning the novelist’s death, sparking a global debate on free speech and “excessive” Muslim sensitivity.



One day, discussing artistic freedom in one of his lectures, Prof Isaac Sequiera, who headed the English department at Osmania University and taught us American literature, launched a blistering broadside against Khomeini’s fatwa and attempts by “some people” to curtail free speech. Prof Sequiera was one of those brilliant teachers who would draw you to the class day after day. Yet it wasn’t easy to stomach his critique of the Muslim response to Rushdie’s book, comparing it to the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Was it the same thing?



The church burnt ‘heretics’ on mere hearsay – and everyone who didn’t subscribe to its worldview – at stake. When Galileo suggested that the earth was round, rather than flat as the Church insisted, he was given a chance to reconsider his opinion while he spent the rest of his life behind bars.



Rushdie, on the other hand, has repeatedly abused his creative license, and the divine gift of creativity, to assail a billion people’s revered icons. As someone born in a Muslim family, he knew what he was doing and its possible consequences.



No freedom is absolute – not even in the anything-goes West. Blasphemy is a serious crime in many European nations including in Denmark. Every freedom is qualified. Every right comes with responsibility. You can’t go around happily waving your big stick and hitting people in the name of freedom. The freedom of your stick ends where my nose begins. And if you think you have a right to offend, well, others have an equal right to take offense. If Rushdie is free to exercise his creative freedom to attack people’s sacred icons, shouldn’t his victims too have a right to exercise their freedom of action to deal with him?



Of course, I couldn’t say all this to my teacher. Blame it on my moral timidity or the fact that I was painfully shy and the only Muslim in the whole class. That was nearly two decades ago. Today, as this row over Rushdie’s participation in the Jaipur literary festival rages on, I am amazed by the fact how little has changed in this whole debate over the past two decades.


The Muslims are upset over the invitation being extended to someone whose name has become a curse word for them. On the other hand, the increasingly shrill voices in the media are crying themselves hoarse as they invoke India’s fabled tolerance while ignoring the sentiments of the minority community.


Indeed, more than their concern for the nation’s secular ethos, it’s their intolerance of all things Muslim that has them batting for Rushdie. They defend his right to visit his ‘motherland’ oblivious of the fact that the man has repeatedly heaped abuse and scorn on the same motherland and its icons in his books, from Midnight’s Children to Shame to The Moor’s Last Sigh.



The late premier Indira Gandhi took Rushdie to court over Midnight’s Children which describes her as a ‘black widow’. He was forced to expunge parts of the book that had Sanjay Gandhi accusing his mother of killing his father, Feroz Gandhi, by neglecting him. Rushdie argued in court that it was only fiction, only to be snubbed by the judge who pointed out that Indira and Sanjay Gandhi were real people.



In the case of Satanic Verses too he hid behind the same fig leaf launching cheap attacks on the noble Prophet, peace be upon him, and his blessed household, outraging his billion plus believers. As a Persian line goes, you could take liberties with God but not with His Prophet. And Rushdie knew it.



The outrage was deliberate – just as most of his books have been deliberately offensive and provocative. He loves to provoke and offend because it sells in the West. And Islam and its icons and followers have been fair game for centuries. Free speech? Gimme a break! Freedom and free speech have nothing to do with it. Even the so-called liberals and Hindutva fanatics cheering for the author and lecturing Muslims on tolerance know it. They love him because the Muslims loathe him.



That said, the way this whole issue has been handled by the Muslim leadership – if there’s such a thing as Muslim leadership – makes one extremely uncomfortable. Except for Asaduddin Owaisi, the young leader of MIM who saved the day once again, not one Muslim talking head could survive the likes of Arnab Goswami of Times Now, India’s answer to Fox News. Once again the bumbling lot did not merely fail to present their case explaining why Rushdie isn’t welcome; they managed to make a laughing stock of the whole community.



This week CNN IBN’s Sagarika Ghose had two Muslim ‘leaders’ pitted against two ‘liberals’ on the panel. One gentleman, an eminent lawyer associated with the Babri Masjid case, had one hand on his earpiece the whole time as he struggled to make sense of the brutal attacks by the anchor and her guests. And studio guests and audience couldn’t understand half the things the other gentleman, a former Maharashtra MLA, kept muttering in a chaotic mix of Urdu and English talking of an ‘international conspiracy’ against Muslims. With friends like these, who needs enemies?



Do these guys really represent and speak for a 200-million strong, diverse community? More important, why do we get repeatedly bogged down in the same old, festering issues when we have far more serious challenges and problems staring us in the face?



As much as I am repelled by the ‘satanic’ Rushdie, I can’t help being intrigued by the question that has been raised by others too – why now? Rushdie has apparently been quietly and frequently visiting India over the past few years. Does it have something to do with the assembly elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, next month as some suggest? Given the propensity of political parties to raise such issues to excite the easily excitable Muslim public opinion so they could soothe it later, the possibility cannot be dismissed.



Of course, Rushdie will remain unwelcome as long as he remains unrepentant. And by protesting against his abuse, Muslims are only exercising their democratic rights and the suggestion that they’re undermining India’s future is ridiculous. We cannot however allow characters like Rushdie and controversies like these to define us and our agenda forever. We must choose our battles wisely. For we have far bigger wars ahead of us.



From our political and economic dispossession to our situation in education and employment sectors, the level of our deprivation is simply overwhelming. A TV documentary this week, again on CNN IBN, on the legendary weavers of Benares, literally fighting for survival with their emaciated, starving children, should be a must-watch for every Muslim.



It’s the same story with the once famous artisan communities in UP, from Aligarh to Moradabad to Bareilly and Kanpur, and the general state of affairs across the Gangetic belt. Indeed, the condition of Muslims in north India, once the power centre, is today worst in the country. When will Muslim leaders and those who claim to champion the community take up these real issues? When will we stop expending all our time and energy on fighting phantoms and chasing chimeras?

Aijaz Zaka Syed

A Dubai-based writer & op-ed contribtuor for The News. He can be reached at [email protected]

  • M.Saeed

    Rushdie is a rogue-writer. the hidden axis of terror! A prophet of doom!
    He is alive only because Khomeini is no more there. The Western world has a long history of playing multiple standards, making twists and kinks of liking. For them, even Holocaust denial is a serious crime punishable with several years in prison.

    On other hand, India is also no different. Just see the response of people commenting on the Rushdie news in Indian Newspapers. Unfortunately, they are even thousand times harmful than what Rushdie writes in Satanic Verses. At least Rushdie hides behind the facade of fiction, while Indian comments are openly full of dirty street filthy language against Islam, Allah (SWT) and Prophet (PBUH).

    Indian double standards are gravely evident from their official reaction to M.F. Hussain’s depiction of Indian mythology in his paintings. The poor man having status of a “National Artist” was officially thrown out of the country at an age of 90+ years. A visit to Ajanta and Ellora caves, that carry a highly respected place in Indian religious mythology, would show that, they house sculptures thousand times more explicit and depicting than what M.F. Hussain painted and got expelled from his motherland.

    • Raj Chouhan

      Your love towards M.F.Hussain and hatred towards Rushdie reflects the double standard too Saeed ji. Hurting any body’s sentiments and particularly religious by anybody is not appreciable. Views of few do not represent the majority, you could have found many expressing their sympathy for M.F.Hussain also therefore, do not blame all Indians for what few have expressed. Because of Rushdi’s controversial status our Govt. did not allow him to enter in India. Had majority supported his views he would have in India. Saeed ji you are a very learned man and I have great regards for you. Bigoted remarks from your side has made me stunned.

      • Usman Kamal

        u are missing the point! m. saeed only showed sympath (not love) for mf hussain and did not support his work. he just said that what mf hussain did was nothing new. and he said that saying that mf did wrong means that those sculptures should also be destroyed! If you say that mf was wrong becuz he hurt hindus! then why dont we have the right to say that rushdie is wrong! thats the double statndard!

      • M.Saeed

        Dear Raj Chouhan, sorry if you are hurt but imagine my disappointment. I am reading TOI ever since it came online and its ID holder since 2002, but have stopped contributing because of horrible negative response from Indians. One has to protect one’s personal honour. You are here on this site along with several other Indian writers and are welcomed open heartedly. But on TOI, which is the an English newspaper with world’s largest certified circulation, Pakistani contributors are almost invariably ridiculed by Indian writers with highly insulting titles like “Porkistani” and rebuffed with highly derogatory unprintable obnoxious bad words. I am surprised how they are easily allowed by moderators? They are told they had no business to write in their newspapers and should mind their own business out of Indian media.

        Irrespective of religious believes, I detest anybody’s insult to human feelings. But, one must differentiate between intended ill-will and demonstrated goodwill. If you know of my earlier contributions here, I have always maintained and sincerely believe that, all apostles that preached humanity (Al-Qur’an-4-59) are a part of 124,000 prophets, right from Adam.

    • Narain Rana

      ” DOOSRE KI GAALI GAALI AUR APNI GAALI GAJAL” Wah what a double standard? You people have not come from the universe, just introspect, why the world is kicking you with a “DANDA”.Others are not as obsessive for their religion as you fanatics are.

      N.Rana (Sydney)

    • RAMBO

      Why are you blaming only Western world and your neighbor India? Does your lovebird China comfortable with you? They are more conscious and worried from Islamic fundamentalists rather from any one else. Why this is ONE vrs ALL? Obviously some thing wrong with you. More religious intolerance more prone to mockery and exposure.


    • RAMBO

      Why are you blaming only Western world and India? Does your lovebird China comfortable with you? They are more conscious and worried from Islamic fundamentalists rather from any one else. Why this is ONE vrs ALL? Obviously some thing wrong with you. More religious intolerance more prone to mockery and exposure.


  • Aryansharma

    There is not a single muslim living in abject poverty in narendra modi’s Gujarat.

  • Mhq075

    a realistic and excellent article


    Rushdie was an insensitive immature brash writer for going into the realm of taboos where no ‘good Muslim’ writer is supposed to go without losing his or her head.

    Nevertheless there is a silver lining in every dark cloud — to a certain extent Rushdie was the first contemporary author who started the process of desensitization of an extremely hypersensitive murderously insecure community — still living in middle ages — about its matters religious and cultural.

    The evidence that Rushdie is still alive is the evidence that our community is SLOWLY becoming more adult more secure and more tolerant about the criticisms that it would have killed for and burn for a decade ago.

    Similarly Rushdie has also grown out of his adolescence into a formidable one of the greatest allegorical writers of the English prose — that he was a decade ago.


    My dear Aryansharma ji — it is good to know that after making a burning shish kebob of 2000 MUSLIMS men women and children — “There is not a single muslim living in abject poverty in narendra modi’s Gujarat. ”

    That is another silver lining here in the dark clouds of the Indian communal pogroms — it is definitely worth massacring Gujrati Muslims in order to lift them from ‘abject poverty’.

    May be instead of granting them quotas they should be skewered and rotated on the burning charcoal hearths to make each ‘single Muslim’ rich and prosperous.

    But for us old timers — Gujrat and Modi are still two obscene names – a little hard to forget.

    • Hari Singh

      @ Nasah

      Gujarat riots were reaction of GODRA incident where 57 Hindu Pilgrims were burnt alive but what the hell thousands of your BALUCHS have done for which they have been butchered by your ISI and Army. First ask your agencies to answer the question raised by your Supreme Court in this regard and then take care of our Gujarati Muslim bhaees .

  • Mahesh

    Like always, author’s bias flaws his reasoning. There are many points missing here. While the “Satanic Verses” stands banned in India and with that, right or wrong, job of state is done. What is the purpose of stopping Salman Rushdie ? He has visited India so manytimes earlier and also moves around the world why no where such hysterical protests take place ? I have no affection for Salman Rushdie but why Indian muslims are too happy to get the religious feelings interwined with dirty political oppurtunism that has become hallmark of Indian democracy these days ? If the author’s presence was an issue, why no protests were held during his previous visits? I find it too tragic the Muslim leadership of India is far more eager to be exploited by political vultures than political parties are willing to exploit them. While I do agree that the freedom of expression or speech is and must not be absolute, the state had done its job by banning the book rightaway.It is not India’s job to demean or demonize Salman Rushdie. Also Indian muslim leadership has to understand that they can not be selective with Constitutional rights. You can not pick religion in one case and constitution in others to get or demand what you want.

    @ M.Saeed, India did what a state would do in case of doubt or dealing with a grey area of how much freedom is enough, by banning the book. Thats it Your comparison with MFN Hussain making nude paintings is irrational. Making nude painting of anyone, forget about, is just not right while criticism of religious practices is a grey area, some may agree others may not.But still India banned the book. Indian Govt never assured security to Salman Rushdie and magnified the threat perception while it has assured all the security to MFN Hussain. Ajanta or Ellora caves to not have nude paintings/sculpture of gods or goddesses. It is time for you to come down from high pedestial and be realistic and stop judging other countries or religions. We have no probelm with following ‘mythology’ as you put it, we don’t need certificate from anyone how we relate to our faith, nor we will beg/threaten others to respect our faith as for us it is not fragile or breakable, but if you choose to rub in be prepared to take back as well.

  • Fareenabtt

    Excellent Blog!!
    May! Allah(SHW) help in washing our worries around the world!

  • M M Bashir Saani

    I am sorry to say that even though debates had been held all over the world against the Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdi, 98% of our Ulmaa, Allam Din and Khateeb who delivering speeches of hours on the subject, do not know what Toheen-E-Rasalat Rushdi committed and what filthy Verses he wrote. They only know by the protest of an professor of Aligarh University, UP, India that Toheen-e-Rasalat has been done by the Rushdi. Is it justified to promote such rubbish and negative approaches? Is it not Toheen-e-Rasalat also? It is unanimously agreed and accepted that our prophet (PBUH) is a great balanced incomparable personality thoughout the history.

  • Hamza Khan (Pakistan)

    Excellent article mashallah. I like the rational tone of it.
    “if you think you have a right to offend, well, others
    have an equal right to take offense.”


    My view on Rushdie and Modi — the Indian government had no right to ban Satanic verses howsoever sophomoric and disjointed the prose was — that nobody read it — ‘except’ the Mullahs — who apparently read it and popularized it through out the entire illiterate world.

    I read it — and it was a struggle — a disorganized disjointed prose of a schizophrenic mind going through a period of diseased mid life crisis.

    Yet the book was very significant in terms of the reactions it elicited and the touchy subjects it dealt with in a haphazard way. You cannot take away the right and freedom of Rushdie to think, write and sell his book in democratic secular freedom of speech and freedom to write – India.

    Similarly the Indian government had no right to let go Narendre Modi UNPUNISHED lest continue as the CM dreaming of becoming the PM.

    If you claim piety of a secular democratic rule of law country you have to work your tail off to fulfill its stringent impossible requirements.

    Otherwise you are just another banana republic of the subcontinent like Burma or Pakistan.

  • M M Bashir Saani

    Even today in Pakistan 99.99% peoples do not know what negative satanis verses are written in that book except what has been communicated regularly in juma prayers of Molvies or so called Khateebs that Rushdi has committed Toheen-e-Rasalat. Whenever asked what Toheen has been done no clear answere is given to peoples because 99.99% did not see even the title of that book. By the propaganda of these illerate Mullahs that book got so importance. Is that service they did for Islam or to prophet.

  • Anonymous

    Saeed Sb

    Some European countries do have anti Holocaust denial legislation and that does reflect double standards in freedom of speech- perhaps the guilt feeling for the atrocities that did take place against the Jews. The Denying element may be more about numbers….but killing of 6 million or 6 innocents iis 1 too many, whether it is in AuSchwitz or Waziristan….

    The point to consider though is that Holocaust is the issue of mortals and such issues may need mortals’ censorships but when mortals think that the Devine Almighty needs their protection, what message do these mortals convey about the gods?!

  • Anonymous

    Raj ji

    Appreciate your reconsideration. For reference though:

    1. The SC has not asked the PM to justify the memo – recent appearance by him in court was a contempt notice for not implementing a court order to write to Swiss government regarding corruption cases. Even Nawaz Sharif went to court as PM a few years ago though the hooligans also ransacked it too.

    2. Since te COAS and the DG ISI had both given their affidavits in memo affair, your wish for asking them to justify thmselves would have (may even now) become true if the politicians running the country had some foresight….can’t blame the robes for not trying if government does not help! Elected governments are the one with higher moral duty to be accountable and that is what differentiates them from dictators and makes them stronger in public eyes if they submit to accountability.