(Published in the Business Standard, May 30, 2006)

The 1970s: Politics, and what the state often saw as the misrepresentation of either India’s policies or its leaders, triggered most book bans in this decade. Former MI5 operative Greville Wynne upset MI5 and the Indian government when he published his memoirs, The Man From Moscow .

It was increasingly books that “misrepresented” India that were targeted. Desmond Steward’s Early Islam and Michael Edwards Nehru: A Political Biography were both banned in 1975 for what the government considered grievous factual errors, as were Charles Bettelheim’s India Independent and Alan Lawrence’s China’s Foreign Relations Since 1949. Lourenco de Sadvandor’s incendiary, and sadly ill-researched, Who Killed Gandhi was banned in 1979, while the ban on Arthur Koestler’s scathing (but hardly well-informed) view of Eastern religion, The Lotus and the Robot , was carried over from the late ‘60s.

The 1980s: The early part of the decade appeared to be remarkably free of bans, but this was because broader, all-encompassing rules had now been framed. Any book that misrepresented India’s borders was confiscated by Customs and released only after the offending frontiers had been manually “corrected”.

In 1983, Morarji Desai obtained a temporary ban on Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger and Nixon in the White House , which described Desai as a “star performer” for the CIA. The ban was eventually lifted, but by that time public interest in the book was on the wane. And Morarji Desai—who was then 93—gained much sympathy when Kissinger stepped up to testify on his behalf, stating unequivocally that Desai was no CIA spy.

But the most significant ban in the 1980s was the 1988 ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses . Many writers saw this ban as shameful, and also saw that this might set a dangerous precedent. Rushdie himself was “hurt” and “humiliated”; India, his country of birth, was the first country in the world to ban the book.

The 1990s: Outright bans became increasingly rare, even as books faced different, sometimes sharper, challenges. Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things was challenged, but mercifully never banned, on grounds of obscenity.

Relatively few books were banned by the Central government–Hamish McDonald’s Polyester Prince , a life of Dhirubhai Ambani, banned in 1998, was a rare exception. Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh was temporarily banned after Bal Thackeray objected to a character in the book who bore a striking resemblance to the Hindutva leader. The Supreme Court overturned that ban in short order, though, and the book is now freely available.

2000-2006: In the last few years, the courts are no longer the main theatre where decisions about banning plays, film or art are carried out: instead, various groups, religious or political, have found direct action, vandalism or aggressive threats more effective. Literature has, by that yardstick, been slightly luckier, though James Laine and Taslima Nasreen might not agree. Laine’s life of Shivaji sparked off a virulent attack in January 2004 on the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, and subsequently, the professor was threatened, and his book was banned in Maharashtra. (His publishers, OUP, withdrew the book before the state ban was enforced, but that gesture of appeasement didn’t satisfy Laine’s antagonists.)

Technically, the Central Government is not at fault; it is the state of Maharashtra, not the Centre, that has banned Laine’s book, but the effect has been identical—the book is no longer easily available in India, and the controversy has long since overshadowed Laine’s original scholarship. Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography was similarly banned by the West Bengal state government in 2003, but the ban was lifted by the High Court in 2004, and her books are freely available.

The one book that is officially on the banned list in this decade has an interesting history. The True Furqan: the 21st century Quran was banned in 2005 by the Indian government. The book has apparently been written by an evangelical Christian group, challenges the Koran, and attempts to proselytize Muslims. A rumour spread that the US government was trying to impose “a new American Koran” on Muslims, and gained such currency that USINFO issued a formal disclaimer to the effect that these claims were false.

The practice of banning books was once an expression of British paternalism towards their Indian subjects: erotica was supposed to be harmful for the natives, as were books that discussed the possibility of independent rule for Indians. I can only hope that we have reached a point of maturity where we can debate, not ban, books we disagree with—let’s see what the next few decades bring.