The passions, issues and politics of the subcontinent provide the correct context for the controversy over Rushdie’s most notorious book, “The Satanic Verses”, which seems to have motivated the attacker. Remember that while Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the famous 1989 fatwa declaring Rushdie a blasphemer, it was India’s government, then led by the nominally secular Congress party, that first banned the novel.
They did so because the party’s approach to religious ‘offence’ – much like that of the British viceroys Congress inherited – prioritized domestic order over to freedom. The Indian penal code contains a notorious section, numbered 295A, which criminalizes “insulting” towards religious groups and other social groups. Police all over India use the law to restrict freedom of expression on a daily basis. Just last week, a South Indian court had to throw out a case filed against a big-budget Tamil film that some members of the Vanniyar caste considered offensive.
Section 295A grew out of another controversy, nearly a century ago, when an anonymous pamphlet about the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots across India. A judge, who happened to be an Indian Christian, dismissed a case against the publisher because India at the time had no laws against insulting religion. In response, the British government and Indian lawmakers introduced one.
The controversy attracted prominent political figures of the time. After the publisher was murdered by the son of a carpenter named Ilm Din, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a supposedly secular lawyer who would go on to found Pakistan, appeared in court to argue that the young killer should be spared of the death penalty. After Ilm Din was hanged, his eulogy was delivered by the poet Muhammad Iqbal, the founding ideologue of Pakistan. The killer’s grave in a cemetery in Lahore is now laden with flowers and treated as a national shrine.
In India, Hindu nationalists see last week’s attack on Rushdie as vindication of their belief that Islam is inherently violent, forcing the state to keep Muslims on a leash. A national spokeswoman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata party recently lost her job and was reprimanded by India’s Supreme Court for her remarks on national television about the Prophet. Since she is now a target herself, on the Indian internet her case is seen as inextricably linked to Rushdie’s.
Yet Rushdie himself has always argued that speech restrictions hurt the powerless the most. Indeed, vulnerable members of minority religions across India are often the targets of Section 295A. A school in the northern city of Kanpur, which started its school day with prayers from several religions, for example, was targeted by parents and police because one of those prayers was Muslim.
Across the border in Pakistan, things are unsurprisingly even worse. Past governments, in order to reinforce their Islamist credentials, added to the restrictive legal clauses they inherited. Today, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a political party dedicated to hunting down incidents of blasphemy, is a feared and disruptive force. Even pro-Islamist politicians, such as former Prime Minister Imran Khan, are routinely accused of blasphemy. Targets who are members of religious minorities face endless harassment and are often lynched.
Meanwhile, those who kill suspected blasphemers – including Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province a decade ago – are hailed as holy warriors and successors of Ilm Din. In parts of the subcontinent today, Rushdie’s striker is also celebrated.
It’s been over 30 years since “Satanic Verses” was published, which made it all too easy to place Rushdie’s attack in contexts that don’t quite fit. Some have sought to link it to what they see as an epidemic of “cancellation culture,” reflecting more than anything else their own absorption in the internal conflicts of elite Western institutions. Others have sought to give the attack an explicit geopolitical dimension, linking it to a recent plot by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to assassinate former US national security adviser John Bolton.
In fact, as far as the subcontinent is concerned, the world’s ayatollahs are laggards in the politics of blasphemy. What Rushdie’s attack really illustrates is something India and Pakistan are increasingly suffering from – the high cost of valuing religious identity over defending freedom.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Rushdie attack shows harsh reality of Iranian soft power: Bobby Ghosh
• Modi’s India may argue for partition: Nisid Hajari
• Police Tactics Chill India’s Crypto Winter: Andy Mukherjee
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion