Sunday, Oct 17, 2021

'The Four Corners Of The Law'

'The Four Corners Of The Law'
'The Four Corners Of The Law'

After the Fab Four (before they became the Fab Five) read out passages from the Satanic Verses on Jan 21 in protest against the way Salman Rushdie had been prevented from participating in Jaipur Lit Fest, the organisers had come up with the following statement:

This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival. Any comments made by the delegates reflect their personal, individual views and are not endorsed by the Festival or attributable to its organizers or anyone acting on their behalf. The Festival organizers are fully committed to ensuring compliance of all prevailing laws and will continue to offer their fullest cooperation to prevent any legal violation of any kind. Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken. Our endeavor has always been to provide a platform to foster an exchange of ideas and the love of literature, strictly within the four corners of the law. We remain committed to this objective.

It was received with widespread consternation and many wondered about who could been responsible for something so craven.

Hari Kunzru provided the answer when he wrote:

A lawyer appeared (the son-in-law of Namita Gokhle) who closeted himself with the festival organizers. He drafted a statement, which we were asked to sign, making clear that the festival was not responsible for our actions.

While clearing up one mystery, it also posed more questions, for earlier, William Dalrymple, one of the organisers, had also mentioned to the First Post:

I didn’t know that this is a criminal offence in this country and you can be arrested immediately. I had no idea that to read a banned book is a criminal offence. According to the 1867 statute, reading the full work or a fragment is not allowed. What you are allowed to do is to discuss it, paraphrase it, talk about it. But to actually read the text is a criminal offence. It’s an old colonial rule like the homosexual rule.

When this initially happened, I bollocked Sanjoy (Roy) saying you can’t stop the reading, not knowing that it was criminal. I just thought he was playing safe. Turns out he saved the festival. Authors were going to be arrested. We were going to be arrested. We thought we were going to spend last night in jail. The police turned up within an hour of the reading.

The TOI meanwhile reports the Jaipur police as saying that they had not given any advice suggesting that any of the above authors should leave the festival:

The cops maintained they had no role to play in the affair. "The organizers should know why the authors went back," said Bhagwan Lal Soni, the Jaipur police commissioner. He said they had received a complaint about the four authors but they had no plans to arrest them immediately.

The same report in the TOI also says:

"There was a possibility of our arrest... so the organizers advised us to leave the festival," Jeet Thayil told TOI while preparing to leave.

Jeet Thayil said he was not protesting against their decision as it was their festival. "They (organizers) are intelligent people and probably they took a right decision," Jeet said.

Asked who exactly told them to go back, Jeet said, "I am sorry, I can't speak any more on the issue. It's a delicate matter and I don't want to add fuel to the fire."

While making a larger point in the First Post, S. Anand referred to an email by Namita Gokhle, also quoted by the TOI, which apparently said:

"The Jaipur Literature Festival continues to uphold the right to free speech and expression and the right to dissent within a constitutional framework. We hope all authors express their personal views in an appropriate and responsible manner. Please refrain from actions or readings that might cause incitement to public violence and endanger the festival and the spirit of harmony in which it is conceived. This is to advise you that 'Satanic Verses' is banned in India and reading from it may make you liable to prosecution and arrest."

Mr Dalrymple in his interview to the First Post had made the point:

...we cannot operate a literary festival if we go outside the law. We cannot read the text of a banned book. If we read the text of a banned book, we are the mercy of the law. We would not have had the festival today, had we not had the authors sign a statement advised by MF Husain’s laywer that they had not been put up to it by the festival, that it was an individual act.

So who is this 'son-in-law of Namita Gokhle'  and 'MF Husain's lawyer'?

Well, he also happens to be the son of Mr Kapil Sibal, our honourable poet-minister, also present as a rhymster at one of the sessions, but invisible in the whole controversy, much as the fabled elephant in the room.

And why was he giving such advice when one would expect him to spell out the correct legal position taking into account what was pointed out earlier, viz:

  1. There is a ban only on import of The Satanic Verses under Sec 11 of the Customs Act, as notified by Finance Ministry in October 1988. There is no mention of printing, publication, sale, possession in India anywhere in any government notification
  2. As Rushdie writing way back in 1988 wrote to Rajiv Gandhi in an open letter: "A further official statement was brought to my notice. This explained that ''The Satanic Verses'' had been banned as a pre-emptive measure. Certain passages had been identified as susceptible to distortion and misuse, presumably by unscrupulous religious fanatics and such. The banning order had been issued to prevent this misuse. Apparently, my book is not deemed blasphemous or objectionable in itself, but is being proscribed for, so to speak, its own good!"
  3. Nowhere has the government ever notified any restrictions on the purchase of a legitmate e-copy from Amazon. The aggrieved party in case of pirated copies widely available on the internet would be the copywrite-holder.
  4. Passages from the book have been widely quoted in essays and opinion pieces routinely and there's never been any threat of litigation on grounds of the book being banned.
  5. The Fab Five seem to have chosen quotations carefully, leaving out the so-called blashphemous passages (that is, they could not be accused of what the govt feared even for the import ban, namely: 'distortion and misuse') and picking up only those dealing with the wider and abstract question of faith, doubt, belief etc.

And, as Shuddhabrata Sengupta points out:

More importantly, no item banned under Section 11 of the Customs Act has been imported. The individuals who read from the literary work that everyone is so exercised about did not have the book in question in their hands. They had not ‘imported’ a banned item into the country. They read from pieces of paper.

Furthermore, fortunately, as of now, as far as my understanding goes, there is no legal provision under Indian law that can criminalize the  mere ‘reading’ of the contents of a book that the law prohibits the import of.  If you have the book in your possession it may be ‘seized’. But nothing prohibits reading. How can it? One could for instance, read and re-read a passage from a book proscribed by the Customs in one’s memory. Can one not share a memory of one’s experience of literature with friends ? Can one not aid one’s memory by glancing at a piece of paper while sharing a memory ?

The prohibition of ‘reading’ would amount to accepting that there are actions that our legal system would recognize as ‘thought crimes’. We have not come to that pass, as yet. I hope we never will.

No untoward incident has occurred. The situation is tense but under control (isn’t it always, everywhere, anyway, in this wonderful land). The Jaipur Literature Festival can rest in peace. Requiescat in Pacem.

So why were the organisers made to believe that serious punishable offences leading to imprisonment may have been committed, when neither the police nor the facts seem to be suggesting such a possibilty?

Why has that impression been widely propagated?

And what does the lawyer in question have to say when specifically asked if he thought the readings from the Satanic Verses were illegal?

Well, this is what Mr Akhil Sibal is quoted by CNN-IBN as saying today:

This is a view that authorities have to take. I do not at this stage want to comment whether or not it was illegal. I think the position taken by the organisers was that nothing should be done which falls foul of the law in any manner. Something controversial is not a problem but reading from a book that is banned, could be a problem. And by doing that perhaps the festival was put at some degree of risk and the idea was that it shouldn't be and if they have done something which was their personal form of protest, then they must take responsibility for that.

So first it turned out that 'Rajasthan Police Invented Plot to Keep Away Rushdie' and now the man who was considered responsible for suggesting illegalities, prison terms etc is actually found to be only saying that it could be a problem and at this stage  he does not want to comment whether or not  it was illegal. 

Post Script: June 24

The Hindu quotes the noted constitutional lawyer Rajeev Dhavan:

In fact, if it was illegal to read such a copy, Mr. Dhavan himself would be a law-breaker. “On January 1, 1989, a group of us — including Dileep Padgaonkar, Alok Rai and others — met at Mandi House in Delhi and read from The Satanic Verses,” he says.

“In India, for a book itself to be banned, it has to be done by a State government and go through a judicial process,” he explained.

The same report goes on to say:

Despite the lack of any evidence that the authors broke any law, Supreme Court lawyer Akhil Sibal — who also happens to be the son of IT Minister Kapil Sibal — advised the festival's organisers that there were “certain legal questions” regarding the actions of the authors.

Asked under which law an offence may have been committed, he said: “There is a ban on import of the book. But if a book is banned, and someone reads from it, it gives rise to certain legal questions whether an offence has been committed or not.”


"Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake / Thy gory locks at me"


Outlook Newsletters


More from

Read More from Outlook

Two Vendors From UP, Bihar Shot Dead By Militants In J&K

Two Vendors From UP, Bihar Shot Dead By Militants In J&K

Police claim 13 terrorists have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir in nine encounters over the last nine days.

In Ongoing Poonch Encounter, Bodies Of Two Missing Soldiers Recovered, Toll Rises To Nine

In Ongoing Poonch Encounter, Bodies Of Two Missing Soldiers Recovered, Toll Rises To Nine

According to the Army, the bodies of a jawan and the JCO were recovered during the search operation on October 16.

SAFF 2021: Chhetri Equals Messi Feat As India Thrash Nepal To Win 8th Title

SAFF 2021: Chhetri Equals Messi Feat As India Thrash Nepal To Win 8th Title

India crushed Nepal 3-0 to win their 8th SAFF title, thanks to goals from Sunil Chhetri, Suresh Wangjam and Sahal Abdul Samad.

Kerala: Six Dead, 12 Missing As Heavy Rains Cause Flash Floods And Landslides

Kerala: Six Dead, 12 Missing As Heavy Rains Cause Flash Floods And Landslides

Several people have been injured and displaced. Dams in many districts are nearing full capacity. Small towns and villages in the hilly areas are totally cut off.