The Rajiv Gandhi government’s 1988 banning of Satanic verses followed its decision to circumvent the Shah Bano judgment and allow shilanyas at Babri Masjid, all seen as measures taken to appease different sectarian groups. Khan, a strong proponent of Muslim personal law reforms, had left the Rajiv government for his actions following the Shah Bano order. Excerpts from an interview:
How do you view the attack on Salman Rushdie 33 years after a fatwa was issued against him by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini?
So far we don’t know the background of the assailant. But the general impression is that the attack has something to do with the fatwa. In a civilized society, there is no place for violence or for taking the law into your own hands. This heinous act deserves severe condemnation.
How do you view the growing and disturbing trend of violence in the name of blasphemy?
Violence in the name of blasphemy is reprehensible and violates basic scriptural teachings to “turn from empty talk and say: Our deeds are ours and yours yours: Peace be upon you, we do not seek to engage with the ignorant (Qur’an 28.55)” .
Three events that occurred in the second half of the 1980s are thought to be linked: the decision of the Rajiv Gandhi government to overturn the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case by introducing legislation in Parliament, the decision to open the locks of the Babri Masjid, and the Banning of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. You resigned from the government following the decision to overturn the Shah Bano judgement. How do you see what happened?
I have written and spoken about these events in detail. It is intriguing that India was the first country in the world to ban the book. The next day there was a protest march in Pakistan and anger was expressed on the grounds that India had acted, but the Muslim government of Pakistan had not banned the book. On the very first day, more than 10 lives were lost and property worth millions was set on fire. Later Muslim countries started to compete with each other and Iran’s fatwa came.
About three months later, in response to my question in Parliament, the government replied that after the ban, not a single copy of the book had been seized. In fact, the book saw record sales after the ban. It is also interesting to note that Sri Syed Shahabuddin, who played a crucial role in overturning the Shah Bano judgment, was the man who wrote to Sri Rajiv Gandhi asking for the ban, and he was immediately obliged . Mr. Shahabuddin himself later admitted that he personally had not read the book and the ban was sought based on certain news reports.
In 2015, senior Congressman P Chidambaram, who was Minister of State for Home Affairs at the time the Satanic Verses were banned, said the decision was wrong. What do you think prompted Rajiv Gandhi to make this decision?
Around 2015, many senior congressional leaders also criticized Shah Bano’s somersault. But in 2017, it was the Congress leaders who again backed the Personal Law Council (All India Muslim) and did not allow the law banning triple divorce to be enacted in the Rajya Sabha. The law could not be enacted until 2019 when their numbers in the Rajya Sabha dwindled. All of these issues that you mentioned were dealt with not on merit but solely to build sectional vote banks, and the consequences proved disastrous for the country.
After all these years, the ban on the book has still not been lifted. Do you think it’s time to revoke the ban?
Perhaps because the makers themselves were insincere about the ban, they made no attempt to stop sales of the book.
How should politics in a democracy like India – where identity politics play a big role – respond to challenges to free speech? What is the tension between politics and justice on this subject?
Freedom of expression is a sacred right, it is part of our fundamental rights, (there is) a kind of national commitment to defend it. More than that, it is part of our cultural heritage. Historically, India is known not only for promoting knowledge and wisdom, but also for its free spirit. For example, Charvaka destroyed everything the Indians held sacred but no one abused him or threw a pebble at him. Instead, he was respectfully referred to as Mahatma, an acknowledgment of his cerebral powers.
In fact, the Sanskrit language has no word for blasphemy. Ishninda (criticism of God) is a recent term. This explains the proverbial Indian tolerance or respect and acceptance of various traditions. These unfortunate episodes show very clearly that it is extremely dangerous to compromise long-term national interests on the altar of political convenience.