Speaking Volumes: The fatwa against reading

(Published in the Business Standard on February 14, 2012)

Among the many things forgotten about the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989 is that it did not stop at naming Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. The author was condemned to death “along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents”.

In retrospect, this was a fascinating inclusion. There was the minor matter that by including Rushdie’s editors and publishers, the Ayatollah had effectively declared war against the publishing industry in general—the typesetters who laid the book out, the printers and proofreaders, all the innocent footsoldiers caught in a battle that they had not chosen. He had also declared war against those not of the faith—if Rushdie was guilty of the crime of blasphemy, then arguing that one was not of the same religion and did not share the same beliefs was no longer a defence.

More crucially, the Ayatollah’s argument was both a curiously modern and a vengefully medieval one. His recognition that awareness itself of the contents of a potentially blasphemous work was a crime was both an acknowledgement that knowledge is dangerous, and stands as an indictment of readers along with writers.

This understanding of reading as an act of will, just as potentially subversive as anything actively written or imagined by a writer, goes back centuries. It is typically, either the state or organized religion that has been the policeman at the borders of reading. If in ancient China, the knowledge of the existence of certain texts was at one time enough to constitute a crime, British India had a milder form of this view of reading as subversive, which influenced the laws of the state.

The most subversive book in the country for years was the Bhagavad Gita, which kept strange company in the minds of British officials. The report of the “sedition committee”, led by Justice Rowlett, published in 1918-1919, states: “The conspirators [against the British government] designed a special syllabus for the people indoctrinated in the same belief. It included the Bhagwat Gita, the writings of Vivekananda, the life history of Mazzini and Garibaldi.” These books, the report continues, were used by “scheming and artful people” to influence the “weakhearted” to indulge in crimes against the state.

To be a writer in those years was to live on intimate terms with censorship, internal and external. The British established a long chain of guilt between printer, press, distributor, writer and reader—all were held responsible for crimes that ranged from sedition to disaffection, just as the Ayatollah would hold publishers and editors responsible for the perceived crime of blasphemy, many decades later.

Bankimchandra’s revised editions of the incendiary Anandamath are an interesting case study of what it meant to try to live within the system while being critical of it. Bankim was also a government servant, and his revisions and amendments to Anandamath are particularly revealing. Anandamath was widely received as a revolutionary text, and became something of a revolutionary manifesto. The first edition came out in 1882; the second edition changed key lines to soften the call to revolutionary defiance.

The third edition made the most sweeping changes—by now, Bankim had been transferred elsewhere by the British government and was trying to ensure that the book was not banned. In the third edition, he deleted many anti-British passages; in the fifth, he added a caveat to the unflattering portrayal of a British officer. “The British officials posted in India in those days were not men of unblemished moral character—quite unlike their counterparts today.”

Perhaps the changes had their intended effect; the book was not banned, Bankimchandra managed to return from the wilderness in his professional capacity as a servant of the British government. Despite all his attempts to soften Anandamath, the edition that circulated most widely in all of its fiery glory was the second edition, modeled closely on the first, defiant, uncensored one printed in the magazine Bangadarshan.

Khomeini and the British differ sharply in many respects, and a major one is that the Ayatollah did not need to be seen as just or fair. In the 23 years since the fatwa on Satanic Verses was first pronounced, much has been written about the responsibility of writers—most of it a veiled justification of censorship—or about Rushdie’s plight. But the Ayatollah’s fatwa cut out the possibility of engaged criticism by the faithful—disallowing them an expression of dissent or offence–just as surely as the Hindu rightwing succeeded in shutting down any kind of intelligent discussion on either Shivaji or the multiplicity of Ramayanas some years ago.

The only difference is that the Ayatollah shut down the discussion with an axe rather than a fist. And that what he indicted 23 years ago was not just the act of writing, but the crime of reading.

I’m at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy






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