“He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself,” wrote Milton, and his Areopagitica, one of the earliest essays in defence of the freedom of press and against preemptive censorship came to establish itself as a symbol of assertion of the freedom of articulation and its underlying principle that decisions in a State must be based on open discussion among its citizens.
On the surface, the principle seems to be simple ~ the much-discussed freedom of expression ~ but the different contexts in which the Apex Court has had to reiterate it at different times do not let it remain that simple. When in 2018, the Supreme Court had refused to prohibit the novel, Meesha, a petition was filed asking for a ban on certain portions for portraying Hindu religion and Hindu women in a negative light. The Court said that the culture of banning books must go because it impacts on the flow of ideas.
The judgement said: “Any direct or veiled censorship or ban of book, unless defamatory or derogatory to any community for abject obscenity, would create unrest and disquiet among the intelligentsia by going beyond the bounds of intellectual tolerance and further creating danger to intellectual freedom thereby gradually resulting in intellectual cowardice which is said to be the greatest enemy of a writer, for it destroys the free spirit of the writer.”
However, the Court added a caveat: “When we say so, we are absolutely alive to the fact that the said right is not absolute but any restriction imposed thereon has to be extremely narrow and within the reasonable parameters as delineated by Article 19(2) of the Constitution.”
In 2008, the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad protested against the inclusion of A K Ramanujan’s essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: five examples and three thoughts on translations, in Delhi University’s History course because, according to them, some references to Hanuman in the essay were offensive. Approached by petitioners, the Delhi High Court turned down the pleas to have the essay removed.
Upholding an author’s right under the freedom of speech enshrined in Article 19(1), the first bench of Madras High Court in 2016 quashed the criminal cases against Perumal Murugan. The Court ruled: “The choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away”. If there were complaints against publications, art, drama, film, song, poem, cartoons or any other creative expressions, the presumption was bound to be in favour of free speech and expression unless a Court of law found it fell within the domain of reasonable restriction under Article 19(2).
In 2016, the Union Government had to unshackle Urdu authors in the face of the outcry in the literary circuit against the order of the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, which had to be abrogated a month after it was issued. It was made mandatory for Urdu writers to declare in black and white that their books contained nothing against government policy or national interest.
A couple of years ago, after the Bhagavad Gita faced a ban and was branded as “extremist literature” across Russia, American Indologist, Wendy Deniger’s book The Hindus: an alternative history was withdrawn following objections that it hurt the sentiments of Hindus. Free and unbidden expression has come under threat since long not only from the state or judiciary but also from vested interests in the name of cultural policing.
The celebrated library at Alexandria was burnt on the orders of Caliph Omar which was: “If those writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God, they are useless and may not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed”. In 15th century China, Stories Old and New was banned as it reportedly distracted young minds from the study of Confucius.
In the pre-Independence era, a classic like Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Pather Panchali was banned for incitement against the British Raj. Tagore’s Char Adhyay was dubbed treasonous. Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago had to face the same type of wrath. The government put legal restrictions on Buddhadeb Bose’s Raat Bhore Bristi. Rangila Rasul by Pandit Chamupati was banned in 1924; it was supposedly an answer from some Hindus to a derogatory pamphlet published by a Muslim.
Sajjad’s Angaray was banned in 1936 by the British government for fear of hurting religious sentiments. Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama was to face a similar ban in 1962 because it pointed fingers at people responsible for security lapses that led to Gandhi’s assassination. Bertrand Russell’s Unarmed Victory dealing with the 1962 Sino-Indian war was banned in India in 1963. In 1987, Sunanda K Datta-Ray’s Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim highlighting murky political deals was banned.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned for alleged blasphemy against Islam. Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada, published in 1989 by Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew, was banned. Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, published in 1993, was banned in a few Indian states. R V Bhasin’s Islam ~ a Concept of Political World Invasion was banned in Maharashtra in 2007 for fear of communal disharmony.
A ban was imposed on James W Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, which the Bombay High Court lifted in 2007. Similarly, the ban imposed on Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India Partition Independence in 2009 was later overturned by the Gujarat High Court. Likewise, The Da Vinci Code escaped a ban in spite of challenges in Indian courts.
It seems to be difficult to prosecute each and every religious insult and perhaps as a society we are likely to be more robust in our responses to one another. One of the cherished objectives of our Constitution was to ensure liberty of thought and expression and provisions in this regard were mentioned in Article 19(1) A.
Apart from the specific categories of legal restrictions covered by libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court and decency or morality, the general test to be applied was whether the matter sought to be inhibited undermined the security of or tended to overthrow the state notwithstanding the fact that it was in restraint of freedom of expression.
Perumal Murugan in his novel Mathorubagan (Half Woman) wrote about a childless couple in a rural area being forced by their families to take part in an ancient chariot festival in the temple of the half female God Ardhanareeswara. On the night of the festival, union between any man and woman is permitted. Thiruchengode witnessed violent repercussions after its English translation was published. The district administration compelled the author to withdraw the book and tender an unconditional apology.
The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association appealed to the High Court seeking that the reconciliation be nullified. The local people filed another petition seeking to direct the authorities to withdraw the copies of the book and to ban it.
The Court ruling was that the State should not permit compulsions on artists and writers; rather it was important for authorities to ensure that there is no law and order problem.
(The writer, a former Associate Professor, department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)