Books have been in the news in India recently, for no fault of theirs. First came the attack by the Sambhaji Brigade on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute of Pune in January 2004, ostensibly over the ‘denigration’ of Shivaji by a historian who was only setting out the different ways in which people have looked at that historical hero. Naturally, those whom he had thanked for having helped him were bad people who therefore became targets. Then rewards were announced, in Mumbai and in Kolkata, for blackening respectively, the faces of the writers Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. Hordes of avid bibliophiles everywhere, incensed beyond endurance by bad books…
Finally came the World Book Fair which opened in New Delhi on 14 February 2004, organised as usual by the National Book Trust (NBT). It began, according to the report published in The Hindu the next day, “amid [the] chanting of Vedic mantras [and the] rendition of Saraswati Vandana”. This is, as we know, how public events commence all over the globe, so the use of the word ‘World’ in relation to this book fair was entirely justified.
It was only to be expected that the speakers at all the major functions in the book fair should be associated with the Sangh Parivar, which, through the BJP-led coalition at the Centre, controls the National Book Trust. This year, though, there was a change in the usual arrangements: individual publishers who wished to hold book release functions or ‘meet the author’ events were required to obtain the prior permission of the fair’s organisers. The Chairman of the NBT, BK Sharma, said that this was not aimed at censorship but represented sound management and was meant to prevent possible disorder. It was only ‘unavoidable circumstances’ which kept the organisers from allotting space for the release of Taslima Nasreen´s most-recent book Dwikhandito, at which the writer herself was to have been present. None but the organisers of such a large event can understand the immense problems involved, the great responsibility that weighs on their shoulders.
A book represents, in now unfashionable terms, ‘superstructure’ or ‘ideology’. It may contain the truth as those who follow “religions of the book” believe their particular books to represent, or it may contain lies. With obvious exceptions, the reader is free to evaluate a book. What is important is that in every modern society, books are a symbol of the freedom of expression that is guaranteed to every member of such a society. In the Indian Constitution, this freedom is set out in Article 19 (1) (a); although specific exceptions are listed which keep it from being absolute.
Maharashtra, ruled by a Congress-led coalition, banned James Laine´s book on Shivaji; and West Bengal, ruled by the CPI(M), banned Taslima Nasreen´s Dwikhandito. In both cases, the stated reason was that the books hurt the ‘sentiments’ of some people and therefore had the potential to cause trouble. Thus ‘law and order’ were given primacy over freedom of expression. It does not speak well for the governments of either that they considered themselves unable to tackle the law and order problems which may have arisen, choosing instead the easy way out of simply banning the offending works.
We do not know if it occurred to the two administrations that they had, in the process, trampled over a fundamental right granted by the Indian Constitution. One is led here to think of other administrations, those which included people who had shaped the Constitution. Did they ban the writings such as those of Golwalkar and Savarkar, which not only caused but were intended to cause hurt to the sentiments of millions of Indians and which recommended the denial to these Indians even the rights of ordinary citizens? Of course they did not. Perhaps some secretly agreed with the maniacs while others saw no harm in letting them rant on. Whichever way we choose to look at it, freedom of expression was not denied even to those who spouted poison.
One is led here to think also of what many stalwarts of the Sangh Parivar have been permitted to say, without let or hindrance, in their writing, in their public speeches, and in audio and video cassettes. The likes of Narendra Modi, Pravin Togadia and Ashok Singhal, and, in a comparatively restrained though no less obvious way, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani himself, have freely painted India´s Muslims as Pakistani agents, as Pakistanis, and as terrorists, not to speak of several references involving what is more directly called obscenity. Of the many provisions in the Indian Penal Code which prescribe punishments for such acts, one need mention only those which pertain to public tranquillity (chapter VII), religion (chapter XV) and criminal intimidation (chapter XXII). Today´s leaders are not governed by those very laws which they are pledged to uphold: nor, of course, are their ‘kin’.
Literally silencing opponents is one use to which political power has been put. The other side of the coin is the spreading of one´s own vicious ideas, their imposition on the nation, most particularly on its children. Both run counter to the law of the land, but why should those people bother who have political power in their grasp and who never made much of the law of the land anyway? Their own agenda is primary, and they use the laws only when they can be used against others: otherwise they bend them or ignore them entirely. The law is only a tool: it has nothing to do with natural justice or with principles.
Political power and the law can be misused to impose on people books that are packed full of lies. Further, people can be compelled to believe what these books contain because books which contain alternative viewpoints can be made unavailable, again misusing the same set of laws. Modern societies are liberal in that they grant great freedom to their citizens as individuals, imposing restrictions only when the exercise of this freedom impinges on the freedoms of other citizens. Books, especially those that are used in school education, are perhaps the finest example of how India, in the last decade or so, is being led back from liberal modernity to a mediaeval suppression of individual freedoms, in large part through the obnoxious and cynical promotion of superstition.
Anil Sadgopal, Arjun Dev, Bipan Chandra, DN Jha, Irfan Habib, Nalini Taneja, Romila Thapar and Teesta Setalvad are some of the people who have written, with cogent arguments and extensive documentation, about the Sangh Parivar´s organised effort to give a particular slant to text books meant for school children. The preponderance of historians is explained by the fact that it is chiefly the land´s history which the Sangh Parivar has sought to re-write, in such a way that it might ‘prove’ the ancient and eternal superiority of its ahistorical and sociologically nonsensical construct of ‘Hindu’ culture and civilisation – a superiority which it says was marred by the coming (always as invaders, naturally, for there could have been no simple traders among them) of evil people who followed other faiths. To regain that superiority non-Hindus must be disenfranchised, suppressed, thrown out – or simply annihilated.
My fear is that the World Book Fair of 2004 may mark the co-option of the National Book Trust, in the way in which the National Council of Educational Research and Training was long ago co-opted, into the service of the Sangh Parivar. If this happens, not just school books but all books will sing the glories of Hindutva; and there will be nothing else to read.
I saw recently a book which documents how, in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, many banned books – not just Nabokov´s Lolita but also, strangely, the works of Jane Austen – were read in secret by girls and young women with the encouragement of their brave teacher. Perhaps the time is not far when I shall have to hide when I read Tolstoy or Hemingway – or Charlie Brown.
~ Mukul Dube is a social scientist by training and has compiled the Directory of Performing Hindustani Musicians. This piece is taken from Mainstream (India).