(This is a longer version of the piece published in the Business Standard, August 25, 2009)

In Delhi’s Coronation Park, you’ll find a circle of empty plinths. These pedestals were intended for the statues of viceroys past, and a few, like Willingdon and Hardinge, have found their perches. But by and large, the crumbling figure of George V presides over a neglected graveyard of pedestal-less statues—the men who ruled India, now abandoned.

Perhaps politicians should be given a mandatory tour of Coronation Park, just to remind them of the futility of trying to keep the past on its pedestal. Propping up the past doesn’t work, either, as Upamanyu Chatterjee noted in English, August, where the cheerfully corrupt sculptor Tamse makes his Gandhi statues from such shoddy materials that the Mahatma must be supported by a bamboo protruding from the rear.

Over the last week, the debate over Jinnah—India, Partition, Independence, the book by former foreign minister Jaswant Singh, resulted in the author’s expulsion from the BJP. In Gujarat, chief minister Narendra Modi announced a statewide ban on the book. He felt Jinnah insulted the memory of Gujarati icon Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel by examining whether the freedom fighter carried some responsibility for Partition. (Someone should remind him that Jinnah, too, was Gujarati.) Proving that stupidity is not a prerogative of any one political party, Congress MPs in Madhya Pradesh asked for a ban on Jinnah—Patel is an icon in Madhya Pradesh too—but the CM in that state (and the Karnataka CM) declined to oblige.

In recent years, the “state ban” rather than the nationwide ban on books has become a symbolic ritual. In 2003, the Left Front government banned Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography, Dwikhandita, for fear that it might offend the Muslim community. (The Kolkata High Court subsequently lifted the ban.)

In 2004, the scholar James Laine discussed Shivaji’s parentage in his book; in an retributive act of carefully planned spontaneous outrage, “defenders” of Shivaji’s reputation sacked the Bhandarkar library in Pune. In the process, they destroyed several historical manuscripts, including rare documents about the life of Shivaji, but the irony of their actions was lost on the mob. Laine’s book was banned in Maharashtra. In 2008, Uttar Pradesh CM Mayawati banned Jaishree Mishra’s Rani, because the book—clearly identified as historical fiction—suggested a romantic friendship between Rani Lakshmibai and a British officer. Very recently, Chattisgarh has banned the Habib Tanvir play Charandas Chor, on the grounds that it “hurts the sentiments” of a particular community. This “hurt” has been discovered after the play has had successful runs for over three decades. The late Tanvir would have been amused at one small point–the play was banned on the eve of a statewide “book reading week”.

Those who asked for the ban had caught on to a fairly simple trend: it’s much easier for any special-interest group to swing a statewide ban on a book today than it was just two decades ago. With each successive ban, we set more and more of a precedent for both a particular state and the Indian state to silence anything that doesn’t fit with the preferred version of history, that offends and hurts the sentiments of a religious community, or that is just inconvenient. These are dangerous precedents to set, and with each uncontested ban, we give away a little of our own freedom.

The state ban crosses all party lines, and one could argue that the practice of banning books was embraced eagerly by a new, free generation of Indians. The British taste in book bans reflected a certain prudishness and insecurity: most books banned under British rule were either sexually explicit or openly seditious.

Post-Independence, books we banned included Aubrey Menen’s gleefully bawdy retelling of the Ramayana (Jawaharlal Nehru felt it might offend Hindus), works by and on Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, and biographies that questioned national leaders (Bertrand Russell’s China book was banned in part because he was scathing about Nehru). Over the decades, it became apparent that freedom of speech was offered, but not guaranteed, in India. If your opinions offended religious sensibilities, or offended our urgent and unexamined need to sanitise national icons, they would be censored.

The banning of a book, especially by a particular state, works wonderfully well in practice. It’s much easier to organise a statewide rather than a nationwide ban, and even if the courts overturn the ban a few years later, the political point has been made. It allows politicians to express their willingness to defend a national figure or a religious belief—ignoring the fact that in most cases, that figure or belief is being questioned by the author, not attacked. It keeps the cadres happy, offers fodder for a string of stirring speeches, and is a cheap, easy gesture. The only constituency that is upset is the very narrow band of readers, publishers, and authors. We don’t constitute a vote bank, so our “right” to free speech is effectively irrelevant.

What we do lose with each ban, though, is the right to examine our own history. The bans against Nasreen and Laine had scholars and writers re-examining their work, for fear that they might attract the next ban—or angry mob. Publishing houses should be above the fear of lawsuits, so long as they believe in the author’s honesty and integrity—but many will now avoid anything too controversial. This has a devastating impact on research into the freedom movement, where few will now write about leaders as if they were more than statues on pedestals. And, contrary to what politicians believe, few readers want to read about statues.

The ban on Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah in Gujarat may well be lifted for political reasons. That won’t stop the BJP, or the Left Front, or the Congress from demanding a ban on the next book that happens to “offend people’s sensibilities”.

Perhaps they might profit from considering two outlandish, and ultimately ineffective, book bans. For many years, China banned Alice in Wonderland–because it raised animals to a human level, thereby insulting humankind. If you must ban a book, find a more splendidly moronic reason. More tellingly, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the most discussed books in Europe after its ban in 1933 because he had “insulted and offended the Wehrmacht”. The Reich rose and fell; Remarque’s books can be found in every German bookstore, even today.

(See also: Banned books in India: 1970s-2006)

And: The Complete Review’s coverage of the James Laine/ Shivaji book
Salil Tripathi on the recent ban on Charandas Chor
Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee on the history textbook controversy