The poor man didnt know what hit him. Indias best loved sardarji was on a visit to Calcutta when he made some candid remarks about Bengals best loved poet Rabindranath Tagore, turning his nose up a bit at his poetry. The city — with its people — was so incensed that the speaker — a former editor — had to retract his words.
Khushwant Singh should have known better. After all, any casual survey would have told him that India has more per capita Holy Cows than any other country. Every nation or rather community has its own heroes, agrees writer-historian Ramachandra Guha. But Indians do not allow scrutiny or scholarly inspection of their heroes. There is a deep sense of insecurity about our prominent figures.
So Bengalis worship Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose, who is still believed to be alive at 113 — and will not hear a word against them; southern sentiments zealously guard the memories of leaders such as Annadurai and Periyar; Dalits have Ambedkar. And Maharashtra has Shivaji — something that American scholar James W. Laine knows well, having been at the receiving end of a collective Maharashtrian ire.
The Laine controversy refuses to die out. His book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India which refers to jokes about Shivajis parentage, created such a furore after it was published in 2003 that mobs went on the rampage. A ban was imposed on the book, which the Bombay High Court lifted in 2007 — a decision that the Supreme Court endorsed earlier this month. The move provoked Maharashtrian legislators to unite like never before in roundly condemning the book and the author. The state government has said it will not allow the book to be released in the state. And a move is being planned to prosecute authors who defame leaders.
We will not allow anyone to malign the image of icons in our state or nation, asserts Shiv Sena spokesperson Anil Desai. And if Laine comes to India, (Sena supremo) Balasaheb Thackeray will see how to deal with him.
Whats clear is that a ban on a book, as historian Mushirul Hasan stresses, is usually politically orchestrated. Not much seems to have changed since The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was banned by the Centre in 1988. Hasan, the former vice-chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, spoke out against the ban, and faced a long and violent students protest.
Twenty-one years later, the campaign against Laines book dismays Hasan. Its about time we stopped constructing myths. If the government takes an unprincipled position and encourages myths, there would be no end to such bans. And politically motivated people would continue to exploit primordial sentiments, he says.
At any point of time, a book is castigated for hurting the sentiments of a certain section of people. Sometimes, its a party that gets affected. Last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party was embarrassed when one of its stalwarts, Jaswant Singh, wrote a book praising Pakistan founder Jinnah. In June, the Congress spewed venom at a book by Spanish writer Javier Moro. The author said The Red Sari was a fictionalised account of Congress president Sonia Gandhis life — and had been published in Spanish and Italian. But the Congress was aghast. The work was completely unauthorised, defamatory and salacious, so we cannot allow the books release in India, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi reiterated.
The party will resist the books appearance in India, but the publishers are not quite ready to give up the battle yet. Its in the pipeline, says Pramod Kapoor, publisher, Roli Books. I dont think the book will have anything that is non-factual or controversial. A copy will be sent to the parties concerned and if anything is highly distorted, well look into the matter, he says.
Clearly, for publishers, the banning of books is a double-edged sword. The days before the ban — when there is an outcry surrounding a controversy — is the golden period when the book sells the most, as it happened with Singhs Jinnah: India–Partition–Independence. The book caused tremors for weeks. And while Singh was expelled from the BJP, the sales rocketed.
Publicity coming out of controversy would lead to… more sales, agrees Kapish Mehra, the head of Rupa, which published Singhs book. But if a book is banned from sales how would any kind of publicity help?
Thomas Abraham, managing director of Hatchette India, stresses that publishers would conceptually like to uphold freedom of speech. But a legal tangle is not the issue. The problem is that in India it can degenerate into extra-legal measures in a flash, leading to vandalism and hooliganism. Still, he stresses, most publishers would rather publish and be damned than reject a controversial project.
Yes, despite the continuing hullabaloo over the Shivaji book, most believe that the tendency to ban books cant last long in India. The Internet gives a free platform to disparate views — and even banned books can be ordered at the click of a button. The fact that the BJP has now readmitted Jaswant Singh into its fold testifies that agitations over matters such as books and views dont have public support. Singh, for instance, says he will not disown his book for its his baby, while decrying the lack of creative freedom in the country.
Out in the street, nobody is bothered. Did banning The Satanic Verses help us in getting rid of terrorism? Or would banning another book resolve the price rise issue, asks Inayatullah Gawai, the managing editor of a news website. We are not bothered about bygone figures but present day reality. Raju Waghmare, executive director, Shrushti Communications, a Pune public relations firm, agrees. I really dont understand why Maharashtra politicians are talking about a dead issue. They should move on.
And if politicians are still bothered about a book, the best they can do — as Guha advises — is not to read it. Or else, write a rejoinder, he says. Better still, publish a book, countering the attacks.
States call the shots
When it comes to banning books, the states are a step ahead of the Centre. The laws are the same for everybody, but state governments can bring in legislation to introduce more stringent parameters to curb freedom of expression if they wish to. However, anyone can challenge this legislation on the ground that it restricts ones freedom of speech, says Calcutta High Court lawyer Joymalya Bagchi.
Section 95 of the Criminal Code of Procedure (CrPC) gives the government the right to declare some publications forfeited if the publication... appears to the Government to contain any matter the publication of which is punishable. The list of objectionable matter is a long one — and can include anything from spreading communal disharmony to posing a security threat to the nation.
Gaga about Gandhi
If there is a man for all seasons, its a dhoti-clad, toothless gentleman called M.K. Gandhi. More than 62 years after his death, books delving deep into his life continue to flow. And going by these tomes, if Gandhi had a middle name, it was controversy.
Yet, in a country where bans and fans go together, Gandhis family and followers have seldom agitated for proscribing books on Gandhi. On the contrary, members of his family have disclosed aspects of his life that would have rocked the nation had similar facts emerged about the lives of other political leaders. For instance, in the 2007 book Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi wrote how the Mahatma was powerfully drawn to Saraladevi, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore. He had touched on this in his 1995 book The Good Boatman as well.
Earlier this year, Jad Adamss Gandhi: Naked Ambition portrayed him as a hard father. Adams also detailed his experiments with sex. The 2004 book Mira and the Mahatma in which writer Sudhir Kakkar fictionalised the relationship between Gandhi and his disciple Madeline Slade (Mira) as a romance didnt greatly trouble Gandhians either.
His supporters believe that people feel free about interpreting Gandhi because a lot of what appears now was disclosed by Gandhi himself in his writings. Not surprisingly, while there have been protests about some works, most controversial books have survived without a ban. After all, the man did believe in turning the other cheek.
Some books that got the axe
1 Rangila Rasul by Pandit Chamupati is believed to be the first book to face the wrath of the authorities. The book, banned in 1924, was supposedly an answer from some Hindus to a derogatory pamphlet published by a Muslim
2 Angaray by Sajjad Zaheer was banned in 1936 by the British government which feared it could hurt religious sentiments
3 Nine Hours To Rama, written by Stanley Wolpert, published in 1962, was banned because it pointed fingers at people responsible for security lapses that led to Gandhis assassination
4 India banned Bertrand Russells Unarmed Victory published in 1963 because it dealt with the 1962 Sino-India war, which India lost
5 Ram Swarups Understanding Islam through Hadis, published in 1982, was banned for its critique of political Islam
6 Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, was banned in 1987 for highlighting murky political deals
7 Salman Rushdies The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, was banned for alleged blasphemy against Islam
8 Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada, published in 1989, by Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew, was banned for obvious reasons
9 A few Indian states have banned Bangladesh author Taslima Nasreens Lajja, published in 1993
10 The 1999 book The True Furqan by Al Saffee and Al Mahdee has been prohibited because it supposedly threatens national security
11 Islam – A Concept of Political World Invasion, by R.V. Bhasin, was banned in Maharashtra in 2007 because of fears that it could promote communal disharmony
12 Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, by Jaswant Singh, was banned in Gujarat, in August 2009. The ban was later overturned by the Gujarat High Court