Rushdie, India and Britain: 20 Years On from a Satanic Storm

It was Jan 14, 1989 and a book had just been burnt in a city called Bradford. The book was "The Satanic Verses", its author was Salman Rushdie and those who did the burning were Muslims convinced that it blasphemed Islam.

Few among those who burnt the book and held up the smoldering pages while posing for photographers had bothered to read it. Yet their act - a throwback to medieval intolerance - lit a spark that was to result in a global maelstrom and the shocking persecution of a writer.

They did not act in isolation - years before anyone had heard of the Internet and email, these global protests began in India (Rushdie's country of birth), were coordinated in London through letters and fax machines, and claimed victims across the world. 

Just before the book's planned publication in September 1988, the journalist Khushwant Singh warned of "a lot of trouble" if the book were to be published. Rushdie responded in an interview: "It would be absurd to think that a book can cause riots."

With an election coming up, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi took no chances and ordered the book banned in October - an action that was described by The Hindu as "philistine" and The Indian Express as "thought control."

Meanwhile, circulars containing Urdu translations of what were claimed to be excerpts from "The Satanic Verses" were sent from India to Muslim leaders in Blackburn - like Bradford an English city with a large Muslim population - who then sent them on to mosque leaders in Bradford.

After a month of protests across the world, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran ordered Rushdie's execution in February.

"I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled 'The Satanic Verses', which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death," said Khomeini's fatwa, which was read out on Radio Teheran just before the 2 p.m. news Feb 19, 1989.

Rushdie and his then wife Marianne Wiggins left their home in the north London neighborhood of Islington and went into hiding under armed guard the same day.

There he remained for the most of the following 10 years.

Reporting the events from Bradford, I found myself wandering into a small Deobandi mosque, tucked away at the end of a cobbled street in an area inhabited by many Kashmiris (from the part run by Pakistan). A young mullah, recently arrived from Gujarat, showed me around the place, which also doubled up as a madrassa in the evenings.

What did his students - girls in headscarves around the age of 10, sitting on the floor, reading the Koran - make of all the protests, I wanted to know. Did they even know who Rushdie was?

"Feel free to ask them," suggested the mullah.

"Yes, I've have heard of him," said a girl grimly. "He is a bad man. They should chop off his hands."

In late 1990, while still in hiding, Rushdie called me up in London - for an interview arranged by an intermediary - in a desperate attempt to reach out to moderate Muslim opinion in India.

Twenty years on, much has changed. Somewhat ironically amid growing acts of terrorism in the West and India, Rushdie has been able to make public appearances in both places (although there were the familiar noises once again last year when he was awarded the British knighthood).

In the recent past, Rushdie has made appearances at literature festivals in India; seen his name romantically severed from that of an Indian-American model and then linked to a 27-year-old Bollywood starlet; and recently boasted of having created a record by signing 1,000 books in 57 minutes.

In Britain, the Labour government has tried to change both public and official attitude toward Muslim concerns and "The Satanic Verses" is commonplace on the shelves of bookstores. Despite the 7/7 suicide bombings that killed 52 people in 2005, London remains a celebrated multicultural city and Britain a country where moderate Muslim opinion has been encouraged to prevail.

But in Rushdie's beloved India, the mix of politics and religion - the so-called vote bank politics - has made such change more difficult to achieve. Expelled by Marxist leaders from her adopted home of Kolkata after Muslim protests in November last year, the writer Taslima Nasreen has been forced into exile in Europe.

The one cause for hope then is that extremists are increasingly less able to snuff out writers such as Rushdie and Nasreen, and chip away at the world's literary heritage.

As Rushdie told a recent American audience: "I don't want to dispute with Ayatollah Khomeini, but I will point out that only one of us is dead. That thing they say about the pen being mightier than the sword? Don't mess with novelists."

(Dipankar De Sarkar can be contacted at


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