Long before Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’, India was boiling over another ‘blasphemous’ book

In December 1932, four young people gathered in Lucknow to publish a small book, a first anthology of its kind in Urdu. Composed of nine short stories and a play, Angarey (meaning “living embers”) sparked public anger bordering on mass hysteria, making the outcry over later banned books pale in comparison, given that it was an innocent time of social media . The next three months saw a torrent of abuse and fatwas against the book and its authors – Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Mahmudduzzar and the only woman in the group, Dr Rashid Jahan. Nizami Press owner Malik Ali Javed relented after his press was raided on the orders of the city magistrate. He admitted his mistake in getting the book released, apologized in a written statement on February 27, 1933 for insulting the feelings of the Muslim community, and readily agreed to turn over unsold copies of the book to the government.

The government of the United Provinces banned it on March 15, 1933, under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. All but five copies were destroyed by the police. Of the five, three were placed in the custody of the Keeper of Records in Delhi (in what is now the National Archives of India), and the other two were sent to London. Under the provision of the Press Regulation Act, 1890 (Government of India), the British Museum obtained a copy on June 21, 1933. Copies purchased or read during its short existence became the stuff of urban legends. I also have a “bastard” copy of the original, although now the book is freely available in Hindi and Urdu with not one but two excellent English translations as well.

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So why was it Angarey considered incendiary? Because it was thought to ridicule the Prophet and several rituals, customs and practices dear to Muslims, and its overtly sexual references were considered obscene. Prohibited shortly after its publication, it left no time for people to form an opinion for themselves; most of those who most vehemently condemned the “blasphemous”, “atheist”, “pornographic” book or participated in celebratory book burnings or wrote to the government stating that their feelings had been hurt had not read it. Obviously, public perception was so blatantly banked against the book and its authors that the verdict was swayed by popular perception rather than informed reading. The voice of the “strident illiberals” (appropriate coinage attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru, albeit in another context) drowned out the healthier voice of liberal and secular Muslims who, although a largely silent minority, could not be ruled out as being without consequence. That a ban fueled paranoia and played into the hands of a relatively small section of hardliners was a truism that escaped the British government in India and continues to serve as lessons for us today.

Angarey book cover

The case of the ban Angarey was unusually pungent for the “other” community; Hindus could sit back and enjoy the drama, while for Muslims it was a bitter pill to swallow from one’s own people. Until now, attacks on religion have come from the “other” community; it was rare for Muslims to criticize their own religious practices. In this, the contributors of Angarey were a novelty. Disbelief was closely followed by indignation: that four young Muslims, also of eminently respectable origin to share families should be so bewildered.

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Of the four contributors to Angarey, two came from upper middle class families and Mahmuduzzafar and Sajjad Zaheer from very privileged backgrounds. Their choice of subjects was therefore both interesting and instructive. All four were English-educated, bilingual, well-off, and deeply committed to ending colonialism. Given their Western-style upbringing, their knowledge of English and Western literature, and also given their “well-known penchant for radical and avant-garde movements (literary and otherwise)”, they were considered as the victims of the worst excesses of “Westernization”. ‘. Resolutions were passed against them in mosques, death threats were made, while literary critics criticized their book for its crudeness, immaturity, lack of literary finesse, and widely borrowed literary sensibility. Newspapers and journals ran angry editorials and articles denouncing the book, calling it a “dirty pamphlet”.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is an innocent novel that is anything but naïve. His story challenges the tolerance of white and non-white segments of American society. The fact that it does highlights how words sampled out of context can diminish the narrative or even reverse its purpose. Its theme of rape and use of profanity and racial profiling is also questioned.

But what was it Angarey everything on? Each of the 10 plays dealt with the lives of the less fortunate, destitute and oppressed. When not shabby and poor, these lives were certainly marked by decadence and disintegration, and in the case of women, marginalization and exclusion. This attempt to become “the other”, by speaking with the voice of a completely unrelated and unrelated other, can be seen as AngareyThe most significant contribution in strictly literary terms, as it opened the doors for many writers to speak in a voice other than their own and yet compelling and real. Premchand had done it before the Angarey writers, but his characters, undoubtedly poor and destitute, lacked that wholly new, down-to-earth vigor.

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(L-R) Ahmad Ali;  Dr. Rashid Jahan;  and Sajjad Zaheer
(L-R) Ahmad Ali; Dr. Rashid Jahan; and Sajjad Zaheer

The overtly sexual references and attacks on religion detracted from the true purpose of the book, which was to introduce a different type of writing, writing filled with graphic images of a sick and suffering society. It was a conscious attempt to shake people out of their inertia, to show them how hypocrisy and sexual oppression had crept into everyday life so much that they were accepted with blithe disregard for all the norms of civilized society. This type of writing, if allowed to develop unchecked, would become subversive and would not suit either the religious power or the political power in place. It was therefore fitting for the colonial administration to thwart, repress and slander such writing by encouraging a religious color to overwhelm its true intent. Unlike later work produced by progressive writers, there was no optimism here, no attempt to provide solutions or even to advocate change. Angarey, then, was a dark, worry-driven documentary. Those who demanded the prohibition of such a book and those who capitulated were not interested in the impulses that animated these four young people. One set simply saw an affront to their religious identity; the other was only interested in buying peace. Only a handful saw and appreciated the intent behind the provocation.

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Post Scriptum : About 56 years later, Salman Rushdie satanic verses was published by Viking Penguin on September 26, 1988 in London. Two days later, on September 28, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. On October 5, 1988, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned it under pressure from a handful of Muslim MPs. India was followed by South Africa banning the book on November 1, Egypt on November 21 (the country also banned Naguib Mahfouz’s book Children of our alley because of his allegorical innuendos about the Prophet and early Islam), Pakistan and Bangladesh in January 1989. On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death along with “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents’ prompting Rushdie to go into hiding with his infant son and wife. Riots broke out in India and Pakistan over the book; on February 24, 1989, at least 12 people were killed and 40 injured when police fired on Muslim riots in Mumbai against Roman.

READ ALSO : A legal take on “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Ruhsdie

The comparison of the two books and the reasons for the ban illustrate a singularly remarkable thing about governments – whether colonial English or native. The knee-jerk reactions of a strident section have had and continue to have an impact on public perception, leading the government to impose bans for – what it considers – the greater good of the community.

(The opinions expressed are personal)

Rakhshanda Jalil is a Delhi-based writer, translator and literary historian.

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