One of the first books to be banned in the modern era was the Gujarati translation of Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) in 1909, written by Mahatma Gandhi. The book was considered a seditious text by the ruling British authorities. The book was banned but the idea in it survived and fructified into India’s Independence in 1947. In 1936, the authorities were forced to ban Katherine Mayo’s “The Face of Mother India” as it was unpretendingly Indophobic, racist and pro-imperial.
While Gandhi strongly critiqued it by saying, “the impression it leaves on my mind is that it is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains”, the Mahatma did not ask for its pulping. Almost all countries ban books that are perceived to be inappropriate, offensive to public sensibilities or sheer seditious.
The ostensible concerns range from societal, religious and political to being just unacceptably critical of the established norms. Even the fantasy series, Harry Potter, had to face serious charges of celebrating witchcraft, hocus pocus, occultism and paganism that was feared to undermine religious values. The alternative perception is that these vivid series encouraged children to read, imagine, discuss and criticise in the truest hallmark of free expression and creativity.
One person’s creativity is invariably another person’s concern. In a bizarre argument, prison authorities in New York tried to ban a book on the maps of the moon as they feared it could ‘present risks of escape’. As societal churn conflicts moorings of tradition with modernity, majoritarianism with equality, intolerance with liberality and absolutism with free expression ~ social media frequently explodes with voices of easily ‘hurt sentiments’.
This phenomenon of seeking bans is gaining traction and support as society is becoming increasingly polarised and intolerant of contrarian views ~ a counterintuitive revisionism is on the upswing in the twenty first century. Space for intellectual debate, dissent and natural evolution of thought for the proverbial ‘argumentative Indian’ is shrinking. The ability to disagree and counter a perspective (howsoever wrong in an individual’s perception) in a civil and dignified manner, is retreating.
Warrior-scholar- statesman Jaswant Singh faced the wrath of a ban for his book on Jinnah, and he likened the spirit to the one displayed in the case of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”. Jaswant, who had once equated ‘Hanuman’ to Vajpayee, had said that banning the book was like ‘banning thinking’, and the intransigence within his-then party has only hardened. Time, circumstances and political compulsions force almost all regimes to adopt double- standards, when it comes to banning books.
The dangers of political overenthusiasm, grandstanding and one-upmanship in supporting ‘bans’ is that it sets dangerous precedents of curbs that militate against the promised constitutional freedoms and societal evolution. The case for tolerance notwithstanding, freedom of expression is not absolute and is within the realms of law ~ one may agree or disagree with the laws, but till the time they exist, they need to be respected. The onus is on the creative community in equal measure and application, to abide by the law of the land, without abusing the genuine essence of ‘creative license’.
However, more often the problem is not with the law itself (though, it can be so), but with the narrowest, pettiest and often wrong interpretations of legal provisions. India has oscillated from displaying extreme maturity to impatience, when it comes to handling books. The co-conspirator of Nathuram Godse, Gopal Godse’s ‘Why I assassinated Gandhi’ was printed in Hindi in 1970 and English in 1993, much before the advent of rightwing rule at the Centre.
Despite its alternative and controversial perspective on the Father of the Nation, the book did not sell out in droves or inflame passions ~ that is the power of liberality and free speech, as it allows varied perspectives to compete, with the better argument winning in the end. Within the liberal confines of Indian law, contrarian perspectives must be allowed to avoid hagiographic, biased or false narratives to ensure that only the truth triumphs in public imagination. This process is inherently discomforting to those who hold different views, therefore the necessity to back counter claims with facts and verifiable data.
The latest conundrum surrounding the book, “Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story”, is part of this challenge. The politics involved with it is unmistakable, and the culture and fear of instant backlash for an international publisher is understandable. While the claim that this is a classic case of a ‘ban’ may be a bit stretched, given that the narrative of the book belongs to the ruling dispensation who hold the essential ‘monopoly on truth’, it is lamentable nonetheless that perspectives from both sides are not allowed to be aired freely and stand the test of public evaluation.
Clearly the sagacity and magnanimity of Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’, is the sort of accommodation that is missing. It is in this spirit of equal opportunities that this pull-back under pressure does not augur well for society. Beyond legalities, the growing culture of ‘bans’ is steeped in our political firmament and conscience as it supports aggressivity, intolerance and bans, very selectively and conveniently.
Not only is the art of debate diminishing, but the larger ecosystem of writers, publishers, distributors and readers are coming under a siege mentality and fear. As Haruki Murakami said, ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’, and that is perhaps the biggest attraction for those who seek bans. Books inherently carry ideas, to think that all ideas will appeal or be palatable immediately is to be naïve and ignorant for posterity. Questioning within the generous framework of legality and pushing peacefully to expand its contours is the only way to progress.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)