Next year's general elections in India will determine the unity within the INDIA block
Well-known novelists, creative authors, erudite thinkers and even authoritative dissertation writers are sometimes faced with questions about their works when the question of their publication arises: publish or perish; publish and be banned; publish and be damned, or be challenged? Seriously confronting these issues is extremely crucial; particularly for reputed authors as also for publishers and booksellers worldwide. The fact of the matter is that it is only complaisant, adroit and mature minds which conceive and publish their creative works, after months and years of effort.
These works are awaited eagerly, read, cherished and remembered. Moreover, these works generally acquire a permanent, eternal station in global literature. Even a cursory glance at the literature of any world language will bear this out. And, once in a while a piece of creative writing is suddenly deemed to be too good to be accepted. It gets the attention of lumpen crowds who dislike and condemn its content, decry and prevent its sale, and demand state restrictions on its distribution. Then follow unruly mobs and ugly demonstrations. The protesters demand a ban on the publication saying it disturbs the values of our society, our country. Not long ago, senior BJP leader and the late former defence minister, Jaswant Singh, authored a book titled: “Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence”.
It was banned in Gujarat in 2009. The ban was later ordered lifted by the court. In another case in 2016, a Tamil book, “Madhorubhajan’’ by Perumal Murugan was banned, but the court ordered against it saying: “The choice to read the book is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book.” Nearer home, in the capital city of Delhi, a book written by three highly educated and well connected Delhi University women teachers: “Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story,” was banned although a most respectable foreign publisher had signed the contract. 45,000 copies of the book had reportedly been printed and hundreds of supply orders had been received. But the ban stood. The moot point, however, is who should decide that a particular book should be banned, just because a small group of people feel that its contents are not in consonance with their views? Just recall, how and what under circumstances the ban on Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses’’ in India in 1998 was imposed, though no one had even seen, let alone read it. The reason for the ban was said to be the publication of vile reviews of the book in some London newspapers. The late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi announced the ban without losing much time fearing violent protests by Indian Muslims. In India, hardly any set principles to ban books exist on record.
Most often, the Constitution’s abridgement of fundamental rights through the article permitting reasonable restrictions is cited. In the United States, books are, and can be banned only by the American association of librarians, according to Professor Jamie Leigh, the New York City-based awardwinning writer, and a triple majorholding scholar in linguistics, French, and comparative literature at Purdue University. Book bans in the U.S. date back to 1873 under the Comstock Act, also called the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” Currently, as narrated by Marcia Amidon Lusted in the Greenhaven Publishing Company’s 2018 publication titled: “At Issue: Banned Books”, in the U. S. “… book banning is rarely initiated by the government or religious leaders. Instead, it often comes from the public itself, such as concerned parents or organizations dedicated to upholding family values. Most of these campaigns take place on a state and local level, not on a wider national level.” In any case, books in America are usually age-group denominated.
The responsibility of ‘banning’ a book doesn’t vest with readers. For, restricting access to a book is significant as it affects not only the readers, but also “booksellers, book publishers, authors, besides researchers and academics, social thinkers, lay and interested readers.” Moreover, such book bans, ironically “make it (the book) more popular as a result of notoriety.” In addition, the American Library Association (ALA) also plays a vital role in the book-ban process. The ALA is a powerful body that commands a profound influence in matters of sale and purchase of books in most public and private libraries, barring those of colleges and universities. The ALA ‘upholds free access to information’, which amounts to prohibiting any impediment in the process of generating and delivery of information. The ALA-created “Office of Intellectual Freedom” (OIF) gets reports from interested communities, mass media, libraries, and schools around the country about demands for book banning and challenging protests. The OIF compiles a list of such disputed books on the basis of complaints and protests voiced by concerned quarters. Banning books may be morally detrimental, convey wrong values, or may be socially, ethically and politically provocative.
Challenging some books may be improper and unjustified, particularly those authored by social workers, religious leaders and social activists. For such books could be useful in creating awareness against social evils, awakening oppressed sections of society to claim their constitutionally sanctioned right and privileges. Meanwhile, are there any good reasons to ban books? Yes, there are. As quoted earlier, Jamie Leigh has clearly averred that though there exist no prescribed rules and regulations in the USA to ban books, general guidelines have, of course, been laid down by the ALA, and the National Coalition against censorship. In addition, school librarians, teachers, parents and general public have sometimes ventilated views against many books, including the one authored by the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in literature, Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye.”
Though this is one of the most ‘challenged books,’ it is freely available in all public libraries. Some of the expedient, oftenquoted reasons, to ban books in the U.S., particularly for school libraries are: racial themes; profanity; sex; violence; negativity; witchcraft; unpopular religious views; unpopular political views; books against the most individually hated persons; alternative lifestyles and unsuitability for some age-groups. In recent times, few other reasons have come into effect. These are: offensive language; explicit sexuality; nudity; drugs; anti-family; racism/communalism; homosexuality; sex education; and occult satanism. This list too has been modified of late. According to the ALA, 1,269 book censorship efforts were received in 2022. Incidentally, efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year.
On attempted book bans, ALA’s president Patty Wong is on record as having noted: “People need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives…Despite this organized effort to ban books, (US) libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available, so people are free to choose what to read.” Nearly 87 per cent of Americans reject banning books. The categories of books against which bans are frequently demanded are those with violence, LGBTQ, pornographic, homoerotic and sexually-explicit content.
The ALA organizes a ‘Banned Books Week’ annually to educate about ongoing censorship efforts. PEN America has also compiled a list of recently challenged titles. Though India, like the U.S., is a hugely vibrant democracy and an extremely diverse society, low awareness, low levels of education, social and cultural taboos and poverty frequently exercise tremendous pressure for banning books. But here’s a brand new and fresh thought. As the world steps further into the 21st century, we several developments affecting books. Today we find books not only on paper, but also on gramophone records (outdated), on CDs, Kindle and other forms of e-books, and on screens of all sizes – large, medium and small.
The Covid19 pandemic brought the book to small kids on diverse digital media. Finally, it’s interesting to learn that there are some titles in India on which bans – either limited to a state or nation-wide – remain. These include ‘’The Red Sari’’ by Spanish writer Javier Moro, said to be a fictionalized account Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, “Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence’’ by Jaswant Singh, “Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India” by Joseph Salem Lelyveld, ‘Lajja’- shame – by Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author granted asylum in India and “Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and journalism teacher.)