Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch
Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

In 1984, criticizing George Orwell for having advocated political quietism to writers, Salman Rushdie asserted that “we are all irradiated by history, we are radioactive with history and politics.” He added: “Politics and literature… do mix, are inextricably mixed, and that… mixture has consequences.”

I was reminded of this unimpeachable truth last week, when the controversy over “The Satanic Verses” returned to the country of its origin. Back in 1988, the Indian government, responding to protests by a few self-appointed Muslim leaders, prohibited the importation of Rushdie’s novel, setting off a series of appalling events that culminated in the death sentence pronounced by Iran’s supreme leader against the British-Indian writer.

Earlier this month, the head of a Muslim theological school protested against Rushdie’s planned visit to a literary festival in Jaipur, the capital city of the state of Rajasthan. The government of Rajasthan not only declined to guarantee Rushdie’s security; it may even have helped to circulate a false story about a threat to his life -- one that persuaded Rushdie to cancel his visit.

The festival opened under a cloud of relentless and mostly sensationalist media coverage and quickly descended into chaos. Two writers, who chose to express their anger over Rushdie’s absence with public readings from “The Satanic Verses,” were told to desist by the festival’s organizers, who believed -- wrongly, it turns out -- that reading from a banned book was illegal, and feared that the police would shut down the festival.

Warning of Violence

Amid rumors of impending arrest, the writers were advised to leave Jaipur. Rushdie accused the Rajasthan police of lying to him -- a charge they denied. Finally, the organizers, warning of violence by a few Muslim protesters at the festival site, canceled a planned conversation with Rushdie through video link.

What exactly happened is still not clear. The organizers may have panicked, and stumbled into self-censorship. The Rajasthan police might have had good reason to warn Rushdie against visiting the festival. And the handful of Muslim demonstrators at the festival site might have remained nonviolent if the organizers had allowed Rushdie to speak through video link.

Some things, however, seemed dismally predictable: competing television channels ravenous for stories about two of their favorite subjects -- celebrities and Muslim extremists -- and eager to oblige publicity-seeking “representatives” of various “offended” communities; opportunistic politicians, who have sighted a few uncommitted votes in the upcoming elections in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh; and an ethically rudderless government, which repeatedly fails to uphold a principle essential to democracy: the freedom of artistic expression.

In recent years, Indian authorities seem to have abdicated their constitutional duties in the face of extremist assaults on writers and artists. India’s most famous painter, M.F. Husain, was hounded out of the country by the xenophobic Hindu group Shiv Sena; he spent his last years in exile. The writer Arundhati Roy was harassed by charges of sedition for voicing a very commonplace and unobjectionable opinion: that Kashmir is a disputed territory.

Still, a broad notion of the rise of intolerance in India only partly illuminates the recent episodes of the “Satanic Verses” controversy. In 1989, Rushdie could explain it in the following terms:

“’Battle lines are being drawn in India today,’ one of my characters remarks. ‘Secular versus religious, the light versus the dark. Better you choose which side you are on.’ Now that the battle has spread to Britain, I only hope it will not be lost by default. It is time for us to choose.”

Blurry Lines

The battle lines have become more blurred since Rushdie wrote this; the ideological choices no longer seem so simple in either the U.K. or India. The pressing issues for most of India’s 200 million Muslims is not the clash between secular and religious identities, or indeed, as Rushdie himself pointed out in an interview last week, the alleged injury caused to their sensibilities by “The Satanic Verses”: They are poverty, prejudice, discrimination, and, most importantly, anti-Muslim violence and injustice.

For instance, Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist hard-liner who was allegedly complicit in the killing of almost 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002, not only remains a wildly popular chief minister; he now aims, plausibly, to occupy the highest political office in the country.

Successive commissions appointed by the government have recommended affirmative action for India’s economically depressed Muslim minority. One such proposed measure is being touted by political parties aiming for Muslim votes. But politicians, fearful of a Hindu backlash, would rather resort to symbolic politics -- banning this or that book, keeping Rushdie out of India -- than take concrete measures to ameliorate the lot of a demoralized community.

And they can always find a few Muslims who are satisfied with temporary boosts to their communal self-esteem, which in the previous two decades has been continuously battered by a resurgent Hindu nationalism and a general ideological climate in which terrorist violence is routinely identified with Islam.

Hari Kunzru, one of the four writers who read from “The Satanic Verses” in Jaipur, is more than aware of this near-criminalizing of Muslim identity in large parts of the world. On his website, he explains that he “had no interest in causing gratuitous offense. I apologise unreservedly to anyone who feels I have disrespected his or her faith.”

‘Islam-Bashing’

Responding to one of the more egregious spokesmen for Indian Muslims, Kunzru writes, “I refute absolutely the accusation of Asaduddin Owaisi, the Hyderabadi MP who has accused me of ‘Islam-bashing under the guise of liberalism.’ I stand on my public record as a defender of the human rights of Muslims, notably my work for Moazzam Begg and other British Muslims detained without trial in Guantanamo Bay.”

Kunzru directly addresses those Muslims who “feel that the notion of ‘freedom of speech’ is just a tool of secular Western interests, a license to insult them.” Freedom of speech, he asserts, “is the sole guarantee of their right to be heard in our complex and plural global culture. It is the only way of asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion.”

Reaching out to Indian critics of Rushdie, Kunzru seems to take an impeccably liberal position. Yet many Western liberals, convinced of Islam’s incompatibility with the modern world and the necessity of Muslim assimilation to secular lifestyles, are prone to regard Kunzru as an appeaser of reactionary Muslim politicians and clerics.

At the same time, Kunzru is unlikely to persuade the many Indian Muslims who are convinced that an abstract notion of free speech, which doesn’t take into account severe imbalances of political and socio-economic power, cannot help them transcend the very real barriers of race, class and religion.

In this sense, the kulturkampf inaugurated during the publication of “The Satanic Verses” remains radioactive with history and politics. As Rushdie himself argued in 1984, in what now seems an innocent time: “Works of art, even works of entertainment, do not come into being in a social and political vacuum; and ... the way they operate in a society cannot be separated from politics, from history. For every text, a context.”

The events of the past week remind us that while a text may remain the same, the political and social settings in which it operates keep changing with bewildering frequency. Almost 25 years after the controversy first erupted over “The Satanic Verses,” it seems to have lost none of its power to seed what Rushdie called “the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history.”

(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net