The BS Column: (Contra) banned

It’s fitting that the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhondita on the same day that Banned Books Week was kicked off in the US. Banned Books Week, the brainchild of the American Library Association, is an annual event that draws attention to freedom of speech issues.

In the US, book bans are most often demanded by conservative parents who don’t want their children to be exposed to “unChristian magic” (the Harry Potter book ban), discussions of teenage sexuality (the Judy Blume books) or racial issues (Toni Morrison’s books).

In India, it’s the state that usually decides whether or not to ban a book. Most books on the censored list are there because they might offend a religious community or because they’re detrimental to the country in some way. And we’re very easily offended.

India set a deeply dubious example in 1998 by being the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, while issuing a statement that the ban should not be construed as criticism of the book’s literary qualities. This was disingenuous: I can’t think of a more decisive act of criticism than a book ban, nor one more readily guaranteed to muzzle the author.

Other books on the banned list have included Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, which Gandhi famously dubbed “a drain inspector’s report”. Again, the ban seems an over-reaction. Mayo’s travelogue deserved to be censured on grounds of cruelty to the reader; she had little regard for either accuracy or literary style. But to ban Mother India was to accord the book an importance it didn’t deserve. Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama, a classic account of the events that led to Gandhi’s assassination, exemplified the over-protectiveness of the state. It was banned because the government didn’t think it would be healthy for the Indian people to read it. This deeply paternalistic attitude, the sarkar protecting a volatile, inflammable, infantile public, remains ingrained in the Indian ethos.

Many of the books on the banned list are panting, heaving works of near-pornography set in a wildly exaggerated Land of the Kamasutra; often they were works of evangelism where the authors frothed at the mouth at our godless, pagan ways Hindu Heaven, Land of the Lingam). The ban on The Scented Garden, a narcoleptic exploration of sexual anthropology in the Levant, has never been rescinded, though the passage of time has rendered the book’s revelations thoroughly harmless.

In recent years, the track record of the Indian government with book bans has been wildly varied. While it is unlikely, as one newspaper has speculated, that the Indian government will ban The Mitrokhin Archive because of the controversy that the late KGB officer’s disclosures about Indira Gandhi and Leftist parties has occasioned, we still seem to be happy to reach for a ban, at least as a temporary measure.

D N Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow is a scholarly, academic examination of the sacredness of cows in India. Jha uncovered many references to animal sacrifice–and cow slaughter–in the scriptures while arguing that the demand for cow slaughter was a contemporary development. The book was banned in 2001, not because Jha’s research was incorrect, but on the grounds that it might hurt religious sentiments.

The reasons for the ban on Dwikhondita were the usual: Ms Nasreen’s frank approach to autobiography deeply disconcerted the guardians of morality in Bengal. The Left Front government banned the book “for the sake of maintenance of democracy” in Bengal, a puzzling statement given that Nasreen had hardly prescribed anarchy or bloody revolutions. The book was condemned as “pornographic”, and as being likely to “offend the sentiments of Muslims”: I would have condemned it merely on the grounds of mediocrity, which is unfortunately not a ban-worthy offence. The Calcutta High Court observed that the ban was “unjustified” and “untenable”.

This is just a humble suggestion, but it seems to me that we would have a much easier time of it–and more reading material–if we stopped banning books on the grounds that they would hurt religious sentiments. Instead, I want a ban on anyone whose sentiments, religious or otherwise, are so excessively sensitive that they might be hurt by a book that they can always exercise the choice not to buy, or read, or even discuss.





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