A brief look at the history of banned books in India:
The 1930s: Almost exactly 70 years since Katherine Mayo’s Mother India was placed on the list of banned books, the import of this “drain-inspector’s report” is still prohibited. More typical of books that incurred the disapproval of the State in pre-Independence India was Arthur Miles’ Land of the Lingam, a salacious “history” of sexuality in Eastern lands. Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven was an intemperate expose of mission conditions in India, and was banned in 1934. Perhaps the most puzzling ban was the one placed on Frank Richards’ Old Soldier Sahib, an account of this veteran soldier’s pre-war army service in India. Richards was a friend of Robert Graves; his memoir of the Great War was never banned in India, and indeed, did extremely well. Old Soldier Sahib appears to have ruffled military feathers for its candid portrayal of life in the ranks.
The 1940s: Moki Singh’s Mysterious India and Bernard Stern’s Scented Garden are fairly representative. Scented Garden was considered too sexually explicit (versions can still be found at pavement bookstalls, providing competition to the Kama Sutra). Mysterious India offered the usual stereotypes, some of them at least moderately offensive. The 1940s also saw early bannings of pamphlets containing material that was considered inflammatory to one or the other religion and politically seditious literature. In 1946, for example, the Customs notifications prohibited any reproduction of an issue of the journal Britannia and Eve, containing an article entitled Codijah the First and Devoted Wife of Mahomet, on the grounds that this might be offensive to the followers of Islam. Pamphlets offering a “neutral opinion” of Kashmir were also banned, on the grounds that these opinions were not as neutral as they seemed.
The 1950s: In the aftermath of Partition, the first bans on specific books from across the border came into force—Agha Babar’s play Cease-Fire, and a treatise on Somnath called Marka-e-Somnath, the newspaper Hamara Kashmir were typical of the Urdu writings from Pakistan that were put on the banned list. One of the oddities of this period was a book about a Saurashtrian freedom fighter, written by Kaluwank Ravatwank and published from Karachi—Bhupat Singh crops up with alarming regularity on the banned list. The ban on Robert W Taylor’s trashy and semi-pornographic Dark Urge went almost unnoticed.
But in 1955, Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold was placed on the prohibited list—marking one of the earliest significant “literary bans” in India—for Menen’s irreverent, iconoclastic attitude to the scriptures. (Books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover routinely found their way onto the banned list, but surprisingly few literary works have actually been banned by the central government—most bans on specific works of literature have been implemented by state governments.) In 1959, Alexander Campbell’s Heart of India was also banned.
The 1960s: Aubrey Menen continued, apparently, to offend the sensibilities of the Indian state—his Ramayana was one of the first novels to be banned in the 1960s. (I never figured out whether the ban on Menen had been officially lifted or not, but the effect lingered—we read him in college with a faint sense of enjoying illicit pleasures, which did his work no harm.) In 1962, Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama was banned for its insinuations about the poor security around Mahatma Gandhi and how that may have aided his assassins. The erotic offender of this decade was Allen Edwards’ somewhat overwrought history of sexuality in India, The Jewel in the Lotus. But the real change in the sixties can be seen in the periodicals that appeared on the banned list. In addition to “incendiary” and “anti-national” journals from Pakistan, there was a spate of Tamil journals published in Ceylon, and magazines preaching revolution and sedition from France to Portugal to Rangoon (the famous Lushai Weekly), that were banned in India.
By the end of the sixties, a few magazines and books from China were also on the contraband list. In the next three decades, the list of banned books would increasingly read like a list of the deepest fears of the Indian body politic—and while fewer books were permanently banned, there was a corresponding rise in temporary bans, and in bans by individual Indian states.
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.
2000-2012: 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 proselytise 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.
From the mid-2000s to the present time, India saw a rise in other forms of censorship. Authors such as Arundhati Roy spent years in court fighting cases, when obscenity charges were filed against The God of Small Things. Bans by state governments–or calls for book bans by state governments–became increasingly common. The UP government briefly banned Jaishree Mishra’s Rani on the grounds that her book, a work of fiction, had added unacceptable colour to the life of Rani Lakshmibai. In 2009, the Chattisgarh government banned performances of Habib Tanvir’s plays, on the grounds that they offended the sentiments of the Satnam Panth community; the Gujarat government briefly banned Jaswant Singh’s Life of Jinnah.
In 2010, Arundhati Roy’s house was attacked by BJP Mahila Morcha activists, after she had made comments on Kashmir, and talk of “sedition charges” began to circulate. In October 2010, Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey was dropped from the Mumbai University syllabus after a political party first complained that the book contained “anti-Shiv Sena” passages and then broadened the complaint to argue that Mistry had offended all Maharashtrians. In 2011, AK Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana, Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues, an exhibition of Korans in Delhi and films on Kashmir all found themselves in the firing line. In January 2012, threats of violence prevented Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival and four writers who read from The Satanic Verses (Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi) sparked controversy and the threat of court cases. Controversies also flared over the publication of cartoons said to be offensive to Dr BR Ambedkar, in a school textbook, and over growing attempts by the Indian government to censor the Internet.
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. Perhaps we have reached a point of maturity where we can debate, not ban, books we disagree with.
(Earlier versions originally published in the Business Standard, in 2006, 2010 & 2012/ Nilanjana Roy)