(Published in the Business Standard, August 20, 2013)
The week after Independence is a good time to remember some of the less well-known achievements of the British, in the days when they ruled India. For instance, in 1910, the British government banned the wearing of a particular kind of dhoti.

This dhoti, as Sisir Kar recounts in his work on banned books under the Raj, had become popular after Khudiram Bose had been sent to the gallows. “On its border were written the words ‘bidai de ma ghurey asi’, which means ‘Bid me farewell, mother, so that I may be born again’.”

It is probably legal to wear a “Khudiram dhoti” these days, but the Indian law is less clear on books and periodicals banned after 1947. Many of the laws that govern the banning of books go back to the late 18th and 19th century, when the British struggled against increasingly “seditious” subjects. To be called seditious was a badge of honour: from Mookerjee’s Magazine’s criticism of the Baroda affair to the singing of Vandemataram (and the wearing of scarfs with the words printed on them), from the writings of Bankimchandra and Tilak to Frank Richards’ memoir of his life as a soldier, much was branded incendiary.

From the Sedition Publication Act to Canning’s notorious Gagging Law, the Dramatic Performance Control Act, the Sea Customs Act and assorted Press Laws, most of the legislation framed to ban or censor books and publications was drafted in those turbulent decades, roughly between the 1870s and the 1940s. Many of these laws have left their mark on the Indian civil services, the Indian media, film-makers, artists and writers, not so much because of a grand policy of censorship, but because of a lack of oversight.

Most of the legislation framed to ban or censor books was drafted in those turbulent decades, roughly between the 1870s and the 1940s. In 1947, a newly independent country did not do enough to strike down the worst of the British laws governing bans, especially on books, and that has had bizarre consequences.

After the fuss over readings from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, one small detail emerged. Reading The Satanic Verses was not a criminal act. The first question the policeman in Jaipur asked cut to the musty legal heart of the matter: had the authors read from the book itself, or from a printout? It was illegal to import copies of the book; it was not illegal to own or read the words, because this particular book had been banned under a technical provision in the Customs Act.

A few months after Jaipur, on the advice of a lawyer friend, I began sending out RTIs to various ministries. I was curious about the process of book-bans in India, and was aware that the Indian state has created a strange dilemma for itself. The British Raj rarely rescinded bans. The Raj was dealing with insurrection and disaffection, the mass uprisings of people who no longer wanted to be ruled. Unless a bureaucrat or magistrate took it upon himself to overrule a ban, there was no procedure by which either the public could appeal against a ban, or by which bans would be automatically reviewed.

Almost seven decades after Independence, this has created a silent monster. Books banned in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, many of which have lost their power to offend, are still banned; we have created, inadvertently, the near-permanent ban. For those officials who have quietly rescinded bans on books in India over the years, it’s a through the looking glass problem: when an official list of banned books cannot be easily accessed, how can you release a list of now-unbanned books?

Without an open, regular process of review—annually, for instance, or even once in every five years—it is hard to overturn or rescind bans on any one book. If there was a process of review, bans would be examined in batches; it’s much easier to withdraw a ban on six books at a time, judging that whatever risk they present to the nation is now over.

The absurdity of the perpetual ban can be swiftly judged: few works of literature continue to have the power to offend over 60 or 70 years, except perhaps for Mein Kampf. Which, since it does not deal with Indian religious sentiments or prick the sensitive skin of Indian politicians, is freely available in bookshops, and has never been banned.

Over a period of months, I sent out RTI after RTI to an assortment of ministries, trying to gain some understanding of the stringently opaque process of banning books and periodicals. Could we get a copy of ban orders? Was there a process by which banned books were reviewed every few years? How long did a book stay on the banned list? Could ordinary citizens—or the author/ publisher of the banned book—present their case to have a ban rescinded, and if so, who was the competent authority?

I wanted specifically to see the ban order for Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama, about the assassination of Gandhi by Godse, which was banned in 1962. Wolpert said in an interview with Rediff that he had never been given a reason for the ban, though he suspected that he had spoken too freely of holes in Mahatma Gandhi’s security. In 2009, the documents pertaining to Gandhi’s security were officially declassified, which made this ban seem redundant.

Over months, we established that ban orders were with the Home Ministry. Many of the officials we approached were extremely helpful, some offering Customs notifications on book bans and other useful leads. But the trail stopped at the Home Ministry, which sent back a stiff note explaining that we were not entitled to this information, for obscure but impressive-sounding reasons.

The lack of transparency is hard to understand. The majority of the books and pamphlets banned by the Indian government are not works of literary merit. Many are religious or separatist tracts, often venomous, often classic “hate speech”. Making a one-line synopsis of these publications available would do the state no harm. The few books left of literary merit suffer by extension: often, a ban that serves a purpose in one year can just as comfortably be withdrawn in the next.

Over the six decades of Independence, though, the lack of transparency on book bans, and its reluctance to share information has become reminiscent of another time, and another regime. [“Any passage…might be construed into the language of sedition,” The Bengal magazine wrote more than a century ago. “Whenever a European is denounced, these denunciations are construed into seditious language.”] Surely the Indian state can do better than the British Raj.