Sunday, September 25, 2011

Banned Books Week, 26 September-1 October 2011

Every year around this time, I dust off two old pieces I'd written on banned and censored books in India, here and here. I read through these lists with a sense of failure: for all of our pride in India's democracy, the rise of Indian writing in English and this country's openness to argument and debate, we still have a deep unease when it comes to protecting free expression.

As a reader, which is what I've been for most of my 20 years in the workforce, whether in journalism or in publishing, I find it terribly saddening and disheartening that we haven't been able to examine previous bans on books. Would the earth really shake if we made copies of Aubrey Menen's gloriously subversive take on the Ramayana, The Ramayana Retold, available? Is there no way we can come back to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, 23 years after it was banned in India, and allow readers to discover the book for themselves? It often seems to me that Satanic Verses marked a turning point in the history of Indian thought: the day we banned this book was the day we lost nuance, and lost shades of meaning.

Every argument about the Verses in the two decades since then has stalled on gross simplifications: this is the book where Rushdie "insulted" Islam, and that is the end of all debate. Denied the right to read the Verses for themselves, Indians are unlikely to discover the layers to the Verses, the migrants' story at its heart, the exploration of insanity, the questioning of faith that Rushdie permitted himself. It followed, from the ban on the Verses, that we set a precedent that dissuaded authors from exploring the big questions about faith, belief and religion. It's easy for a contemporary writer to criticise the India Shining story--but faith has slid silently out of the frame, no longer to be discussed with ease.

Banned Books Week makes me envious. The reverence with which the US still--by and large--regards the right of its citizens to free speech is not encoded into our own DNA. We haven't yet had a political party or an individual politician stand up for free expression rights, even though a culture that bans books freely is also often a culture that will work very hard to shut down other forms of debate and dissent. Few of us would be surprised if school libraries banned books--in fact, in most schools, the librarian is expected to act as a kind of moral guardian, and many "filter" out books that might be seen as too violent or too unsettling for their constituencies.

The courts have consistently worked to protect free speech rights, but as a culture, I think we prefer silence to dissent and we would all too often choose the right not to be offended over the right to have our minds and beliefs challenged. We very rarely connect all the dots and ask what a book ban pronounced (and never re-examined) twenty years ago might have to do with a state that thinks it's all right to deport foreign journalists who are asking inconvenient questions, or another state that thinks it's okay to force Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey out of Bombay bookshops because his writing does not spare the Shiv Sena.

Perhaps we could start Banned Books Week here in India just by talking about, and thinking about, censorship. There's the censorship of the state, but there is also the far more insidious and damaging self-censorship that we often practice, or the intolerance many might face when they express views that differ from the hard certitudes of the moral majority. I hope to spend at least part of Banned Books Week thinking about the ideas and debates that make me uncomfortable, and trying to figure out where, and why, I have been silent in my own life. And if I have time, I'll try to share posts about books that have been banned in India, and what they might still have to offer us as readers. Feel free to share your own thoughts.

14 comments:

  1. I remember my college library did not allow us to issue Love in the time of Cholera owing to its erotic elements, Also that thing called love, and many others. While as a journalism student, we had a literature course in one semester, our readings were restricted to india today and outlook. Not even better magazines like the economist. Let alone novels or other books. Shiv Khera was encouraged as if he is the commission agent of Intellectual Nirvana

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  2. Not just books. The concept of banning shouldn't be there at all in a democracy. Be it books, movies, or any form of art.

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  3. Anonymous8:04 PM

    @ Rajeev Roark It's an ironic tragedy that of all institutions, a library should ban a book! Sympathies with what you had had to put up with!

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  4. "....but as a culture, I think we prefer silence to dissent and we would all too often choose the right not to be offended over the right to have our minds and beliefs challenged ."

    you are right on.. hit the nail in the head.. that pretty much says everything about everything in India :)

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  5. This is such a brilliant post. Absolutely spot on.

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  6. I am pleased to report that Gilmore's Law ("The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it") is at least partially applicable: I have never read Rushdie's Verses, but just downloaded the Kindle version. I had less luck with Menen's Ramayana, but no doubt its time will come.

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  7. Wonderful piece, thank you! It's really interesting how Rushdie's book is repeatedly called up a watershed in modern censorship history, not just for India, but for so many places. As you so rightly point out, faith becomes that thing in the center of the chalk circle we all have to dance around cautiously even as we ignore it!

    Johann Hari has a really interesting speech on how the freedom to criticize religions has eroded away in recent times ( http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/independent-voices-5x15-hacked-off-with-free-speech-2308436.html ), and truly I feel this problem affects India in the worst possible way. Secularism is one face of the coin; needing to keep everyone happy all the time over EVERYTHING becomes the other, even when actually it curtails the freedoms of questioning, speech & ideas in the worst and most undermining possible way.

    But you are right :-) thinking about why censorship & bannings exist in India is the best way to start. The government banned 'The Satanic Verses' because of a growing global outcry, and because of riots in India. In that respect - in light of their concern, presumably, for peoples' safety and their peoples' satisfaction, it's somewhat understandable (though idealistically wrong). So it might be worth questioning also why exactly such insecurity over religion, and what's said about it, exists in India, and trying to combat that!

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  8. In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer Heinrich Heine — referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, during the Spanish Inquisition — wrote, "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." It was so prophetic as regards what happened in Germany, 100 years later. Nazis burnt books in a Berlin library in 1933 and ironically invoking Martin Luther. We all know where it ended. To me that tells the problems with banning books than anything else.

    But at the same time, in India, many of the so-called liberal voices which oppose the ban on Rushdie & co also demand ban of Bhagavad Gita from schools. I wonder if sometimes their opposition is to the ban of books or to the ban of "their books". For they have never opposed someone in Delhi ordering a child in Jammu, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Gujarat to read Shakespeare, Keats or Tagore but raise their voices only when he orders something unpalatable to their taste/beliefs/opinions be read by the children. Most people would agree to inculcation of Newton's scientific theories in children but would repel to inculcation of his religious theories and this despite many being clueless about both of them.

    Wouldn't many parents pick an issue with schools if the librarians do not act as moral guardians ? Do not parents themselves act as moral guardians or shouldn't they be ? Moral guardians are inevitable for children and in many ways, necessary. If parents outsource their children's education to schools, then they should be prepared for outsourcing their moral guardianship to the schools as well.

    In the early part of the century, when someone was asked for his suggestions to draw up a charter of human rights, he responded by saying that we should first draw up a charter of human responsibilities. This too me sums up today's problem - Where everybody is talking of their rights and nobody of their responsibilities. How many newspapers/writers have owned up to writing/concocting baseless facts ? To me, any talk of rights without responsibilities is meaningless.

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  9. Thanks for all the comments, especially for sharing your experiences with censorship.

    Yogi, the Bhagavad Gita issue isn't as simple as you make it out to be. The question that rose with the Gita was whether schools run by the Indian state should make the reading of any religious text compulsory.

    The Constitution is very clear (Fundamental Rights, Freedom of Religion) that the state should uphold the principle of secularism: "A state-run institution cannot impart education that is pro-religion." If you've read most of the debate over the Gita, no one has said it shouldn't be taught as literature; most commentators have argued very strongly, however, that the state has no business making it compulsory religious reading.

    Your point about the need for librarians to act as moral guardians or parents to act as censors bears out my belief that many Indians don't actually think free speech is important. Why would it be such a bad thing if our children learned to think for themselves, and why would children have to be sheltered in any way from books, ideas and arguments? If they encounter beliefs that run contrary to what they're told at home, surely that would start a healthy debate between parent and child? The only families that would find this threatening are families that run on the principle that children shouldn't think for themselves. But that's just my opinion.

    I don't see how your last point connects with the rest of this argument. Most of the Indian columnists I've read who've written on censorship have made their case based on facts rather than on emotional arguments. The "responsibilities" argument is an old red herring: it's used far too often in the Indian context to admonish writers and to tell them that they shouldn't be writing about x, y or z.

    Thanks for sharing your views.

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  10. Thank-you for this post.

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  11. It'll be interesting when Indian online retailers begin e-book downloads from their websites. If reading devices allow you to overcome censorship imposed in physical bookshops, I'm sure technology will help find a way where books that are banned in India can still find a way to their deserving readers in this country. Or wherever they are. Hackers are such a necessary evil in society. :)

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  12. Thank you for this interesting post. I mentioned it in a Banned Book week posting on my own blog http://archivesinfo.blogspot.com/2011/09/in-celebration-of-banned-books-week.html

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  13. Betrayal in India - D.F. Karaka banned sometimes in 1950.

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  14. Hi Nila,

    I have been reading ur blog since quiet some time & i know that my post is not in sync with the main issue of ur post. But i just wanted to know the ways to get my work published. I have started writing on a totally new topic & hence i thought u just might b the right person to ask.

    Urwashi

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