Speaking Volumes: Where They Burn Books

(Published in the Business Standard, October 13, 2014)

You know it’s winter in Delhi when the breeze is scented with the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves, and when the talk turns, as it does these days, to the question of which books are ripe for burning.

Subramanian Swamy, BJP leader, had a few suggestions when it was his turn to talk at a panel on Hemu and history, held at the National Museum, organised by the ABISY. Affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ABISY’s stated aim is to write “Bharatheeya history from a national perspective”.

Now that the rightwing is in power, the ABISY’s actions are a useful indicator of what to expect over the next five years. Bonfires seem to be popular; as FirstPost reports, Swamy was applauded by those in the auditorium when he said: ““Books written by Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and other historians of Nehru must be burnt in a bonfire.”

Dr Swamy is well-known for giving voice to the outrageous, but it is a sign of the times that he felt confident enough to repeat his suggestions in interviews to the media, and to justify the burning of history books by referring to the burning of British-made goods in Gandhi’s time. Nor can Dr Swamy be dismissed as merely provocative: he speaks to and for the growing ranks of angry, far right extremists who are not known for their restraint or their tolerance.

The weekend brought more signs of the times in India – an age of swaggering, strutting censorship, the unapologetic silencing or heckling of voices that dared to question or challenge the dominant rightwing narrative. As Scroll.in reported, Forward Press had copies of its October issue confiscated, and cases were filed against the magazine claiming that religious sensibilities had been offended.

The magazine’s crime was to put forward Bahujan and tribal versions of the Durga-Mahishasur myth in a set of articles, most of them scholarly; the one that was singled out as offensive was an illustrated piece.

With the rise in offence laws and their application in India over the last decade, the claiming of offence has become an easy business. Instead of writings, films, documentaries and art exhibitions being seen as a whole, they are in effect dismembered by those who claim offence, and reduced to sentences or images that, taken in isolation, might fit the relevant sections of the law. In the Internet age, distortions of the implied “offence” are common; scholars find that in these warped mirrors, the erotic becomes obscene, a mythical seduction is described as prostitution, and any attempt to bring up alternate versions of religion, especially non-Brahminical in the Hindu context, are recast as attacks on myths and scriptures.

Entire groups of Indians and scholars of India have been, in effect, silenced or threatened by the combination of the laws, and the hidden violence implied in statements like the one made by Dr Swamy. As the Forward Press case indicates, for Dalit historians and writers trying to reclaim their own history, this is a time when threats of censorship hang around their necks like nooses.

This week’s examples—the one against the Forward Press, the ban on the late Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s documentary, En Dino Muzaffarnagar, an investigation into how the Muzaffarnagar riots were stoked by politicians and prominent leaders—are dismaying, and confirm fears voiced before the elections that India would see further assaults on freedom of expression. But it was the tenor and aggression of the threats made that day at the National Museum that made me think of what it means for a nation to get used to the dangerous idea that burning books is not only acceptable, but necessary.

“Where they burn books, they will some day burn people.” Most readers know that this quote comes from the poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856], but there’s an interesting story behind the words.

Heine was a Germanic Jew, who became a writer at a time of significant but subterranean anti-Semitism. One of his earliest memories was of being mocked at school by his playmates when he innocently said that his grandfather was a Jew. He had put that incident behind him when he wrote Almansor, an early attempt at drama set in Granada in the 1500s, in “the city of double enemies – discord inside, outside malice and rage”. Almansor comes back home and tells his old retainer of the terrible sights he has seen, which includes the burning of the Koran by Ximene, a Spaniard, in the public square. Hassan responds with the famous line.

It is often assumed that Heine, writing in the early 1800s, was prescient about the rise of Nazi Germany, but I think he was writing about his own times after all. His life was free of the extreme horrors one usually associates with persecution; this was a time before the Holocaust, he was not imprisoned (though his Jewishness made it impossible for him to think of a job as a University professor), and he was not tortured or killed for his racial origins.

But Almansor was only staged once, in August 1823 in Brunswick. Heine’s biographer Kossof sets down what happened: just before the last act, a drunk caused an uproar in the auditorium by shouting that the play was written “by the Jew Heine”. The audience in Brunswick confused Heine the writer with a much-despised moneylender of the same name. They rioted; Almansor was never staged again.

It took a century for the mild hatreds and commonly held prejudices of Heine’s time to ripen into something far worse; the world has never forgotten where the book-burnings ended in Germany. India is a different country, and history will take a different path here.

Swamy’s incendiary call to torch and trample on histories of the country that are inconvenient, because they are not histories of hate and divisiveness, is in keeping with his beliefs. But remember what Rohinton Mistry said in 2010 when his book was burned in Mumbai by a different set of intolerant Indians: “Burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.”

Four years ago, Mistry saw that the book burners, and the rest of India, faced a choice: we were at the lip of the abyss, and we could step back, or go over.

It is still possible to step back, even if time is running out fast.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: