Timeline of book bans/ challenges and censorship in the arts in India
An indicative list of key bans and challenges in India since Independence, with an emphasis on writers and literature. This timeline will be updated as information becomes available, and is a work-in-progress; if you’d like to add any cases of bans/ censorship, please add a line and a citation in the comments.
Note: The 2000s saw a rise in Internet censorship, documented by The Hoot and other organisations in these links.
Censorship of online media: The Hoot’s timeline
Internet censorship in India: the Wiki page
India’s downward spiral: The EFF page on rising online censorship
Privacy, surveillance and the Indian government: Pranesh Prakash in India Ink
1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000-2010 | 2010- |
August 2013: Kannada writer Yogesh Master is arrested for his novel Dhundi: The Story of a Forester Becoming Ganapathi, on the charge that his depiction of Ganesha is “offensive to religious sentiments”, an offence under Sec 295(a).
August 2013: Nine VHP members are arrested for vandalizing an art exhibition in Ahmedabad, and destroying/ damaging artwork by Pakistani artists.
May 2013: The state government of Tamil Nadu bans Dalit writer K. Senthil Mallar’s History of the Pandiyar Resurgence (Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaru), on the grounds that it contains “material of false, objectionable and distorted facts criticising all communities in mala fide remarks that would affect public peace and tranquillity and cause caste disharmony, hatred and ill-will among various castes”. The case is in court.
May 2013: Artists protest the arrest of poets and singers from the Kabir Kala Manch in Mumbai, who were arrested under the anti-terrorism act and accused of having Naxal links. Artists claim they were arrested for singing protest songs against the government.
February 2013: VHP activists briefly shut down a show of nudes at the Delhi Art Gallery, alleging obscenity, but the show re-opens under police protection and runs for the next month without further violence.
January 2013: Salman Rushdie is prevented from coming to the Kolkata Literary Festival by the state government. Reactions from writers and journalists are heavily critical of the government.
Ruchir Joshi, Children of a Dreadful Midnight: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130131/jsp/opinion/story_16502343.jsp#.UiOf7rzPHP8
Sandip Roy, The Shameful Truth About Kolkata: http://www.firstpost.com/living/rushdie-ban-reveals-the-shameful-truth-about-kolkata-610084.html
July 2012: Amir Bashir’s film on Kashmir, Harud, runs into trouble when the Censor Board objects to promos that feature protagonists against a backdrop that reads ‘Azaadi’ (Freedom).
April 2012: In West Bengal, a university professor is arrested for posting a cartoon critical of the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, on his Facebook page.
March 2012: Delhi’s art community protests after an exhibition of photographs by Sunil Gupta is shut down when a viewer complains that the photographs are offensive. The photographs are an exploration of gay life called ‘Sun City and other stories’.
26th January 2012: After running into trouble with the Indian Censor Board with his earlier films, Ashvin Kumar releases Inshallah Kashmir online for free on Republic Day.
Anand Patwardhan on the censor board: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?216058
January 2012: Threats of violence by a handful of protestors prevent Salman Rushdie from coming to or addressing writers and readers at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival.
Four writers, Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil, read extracts from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in a gesture of solidarity and protest at the festival, sparking controversy.
Read more: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main51.asp?filename=hub110212Notes.asp
January 2012: Symbiosis University in Pune cancels a screening of Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi, a film on Kashmir, after members of the right-wing ABVP protest, saying that the film is anti-national and offends their sentiments.
January 2012: The Uttar Pradesh government bans performances of a play called ‘My Sandal’, for violating the election code of conduct. The play is widely assumed to satirise the corruption and expensive tastes of UP chief minister Mayawati.
November 2011: An exhibition of Korans in Delhi is shut down after All-India Muslim Personal Law Board member Kamaal Farooqui and Syed Yahya Bukhari, brother of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, along with their supporters denounced the event for “wrongly interpreting the tenets of Islam and the holy Quran”.
October 2011: Delhi University’s Academic Council drops A.K. Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayanas from the Delhi University B.A. syllabus, chiefly due to pressure from right-wing organizations.
July 2011: Screenings of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues cancelled in New York after protests from the Forum for Hindu Awakening.
March 2011: The state of Gujarat bans Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India. Despite the state ban, Union law minister Moily rules out the possibility of a ban on the book from the Centre. “”There is no question of banning the book as the author has clarified that he has not written what has been attributed to the book,” Moily is reported to have said.
October 2010: Copies of Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey are burnt and a 24-hour notice was given to vice chancellor Dr Rajan Welukar to drop the novel from the second year syllabus of Mumbai University. Bal Thackeray’s grandson, Aditya Thackeray, leads the protest, complaining that the book contains “anti-Shiv Sena” passages. The complaint later shifts to the charge that Such A Long Journey offends the sensibilities of Maharashtrians. Mumbai University issues notices to all colleges dropping the novel from the syllabus.
October 2010: Writer Arundhati Roy faces sedition charges after speaking on Kashmir at a symposium. A month later, in November, a mob of BJP Mahila Morcha activists attacks her house.
End-2009: Legal experts acting on behalf of Sonia Gandhi send the author of The Red Sari, Javier Moro, an email alleging that portions of his book are false and defamatory. In 2010, Congress loyalists agitate and burn effigies of Moro, demanding that publication of the book in India be stopped, but the controversy dies out.
August 20, 2009: The Narendra Modi government in Gujarat bans Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah-India, Partition, Independence, on the grounds that it tarnishes the image of Sardar Patel. In September, the Gujarat High Court overturns the ban, saying that the State needs to have more respect for the fundamental rights of citizens.
July 8, 2009: The Chattisgarh state government bans the late Habib Tanvir’s play, Charandas Chor, written in Chattisgarhi with a 20-year record of performances in the state, on the grounds that it shows the followers of the Satnami Panth community in a bad light.
February 2008: The UP government bans Jaishree Misra’s Rani, a work of historical fiction, on the grounds that it contains “highly objectionable” material about Rani Lakshmibai’s personal life–ie, a reference to a (fictionalised) chaste romance between Lakshmibai and a British officer.
July 2006: Members of the Bangladeshi community in London march in protest against Monica Ali’s “misrepresentation” of Sylheti life in her novel, Brick Lane. The protests fizzle out, and the film version of Brick Lane is released in 2007.
January 2006: The Maharashtra government had banned the sale and circulation of yet another James Laine book, The Epic of Shivaji, for derogatory observations on the Maratha warrior king. The book is a translation of a 300-year-old Sanskrit epic, Shivbharat, commissioned by Shivaji himself to celebrate his life.
On the James Laine controversy:
Film: 2006, seven states (Nagaland, Punjab, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh) ban the release and exhibition of The Da Vinci Code. Many of the state high courts have since overturned the ban.
September 2005: West Bengal High Court overturns the 2003 ban against Taslima Nasrin’s Dwaikhandito.
Over the next few years, Taslima, exiled from Bangladesh, faces protests and threats in India. Shunted from one place to another, surrounded by security and with the state unwiling to guarantee her safety, the author finally gives up on her hopes of settling in Bengal.
March 2004: Politician Gopinath Munde says that he was wrong to have asked for a ban on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, on the grounds that it contained passages derogatory to Shivaji.
In 2004, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” was banned in Chennai. The play however, has played successfully in many, many other parts of the country since 2003. A Hindi version of the play has been performing since 2007.
January, 2004: Over 150 activists from the Sambhaji Brigade attacked BORI, ransacking the building, defacing books and artworks, and destroying property.
-14 January: Despite the fact that OUP had already withdrawn Laine’s book from the Indian market two months earlier, the Maharashtra government moved — eventually successfully — to have Laine’s book banned, again citing Sections 153 and 153A of the Indian Penal Code.
-16 January: Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks out against the book-ban on Shivaji.
April 2004: The Kerala High Court upholds a 1991 ban on the staging of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. The original 1991 order says that the musical “is both sacrilegious and blasphemous, which would outrage the religious feeling of Christians.”
2004: the film Final Solution, which looks at religious riots and the Hindu-Muslim riots is banned by the Indian Censor Board, which calls it “highly provocative”. The ban is eventually lifted.
November, 2003: James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India published in India by Oxford University Press India in June, is withdrawn from the Indian market by the Press after protests from Hindu rightwing parties to the effect that Laine insulted Shivaji.
November 2003: The West Bengal government bans Taslima Nasrin’s Dwaikhandito on the grounds that its contents could inflame religious passions—“for the sake of maintenance of democracy” in Bengal. (In 2009, the Calcutta High Court overturns the ban.)
2003: the Indian Censor Board bans the film ‘Gulabi Aaina (The Pink Mirror)’, a film on Indian transsexuals produced and directed by Sridhar Rangayan. The censor board cited that the film was ‘vulgar and offensive’.
2002: Anand Patwardhan War and Peace, on nuclear testing, is asked to make 21 cuts before the film can be screened. Patwardhan objects, saying “If these cuts do make it, it will be the end of freedom of expression in the Indian media.” The courts declare the cuts unconstitutional.
2001: The BJP and the VHP urge their members to burn copies of historian D N Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow, just before the publication of the book. It is banned by the Hyderabad court on the grounds that “it might hurt religious sentiments”.
February 2000: The UP government orders filming on Water to cease, saying that it has “provoked civil disorder”.
February 14, 2000: Ayatollah Hassan Saneii, the head of the 15th of Khordad Foundation, reiterates that the death sentence remains valid and the foundation’s $2.6 million reward will be paid with interest to Rushdie’s assassins.
January 2000: A 2,000-strong mob burns down the set in Varanasi where Deepa Mehta’s Water is being filmed; it touches on the lives of widows in Varanasi. The Hindutva parties feel that it “shows Hindu culture in a bad light” to depict widows in the manner that Mehta has.
Film and art were more often challenged in the 1990s than books or plays. (Additional material to come.)
1999: Maharashtra government banned the Marathi play ‘Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy” or ‘I am Nathuram Godse Speaking
1998: Hamish McDonald’s Polyester Prince, a life of Dhirubhai Ambani, banned.
September 1995: The customs sends a directive to Rupa & Co, asking it to stop distributing Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh because “the question of permissibility or otherwise of marketing the book was under the consideration of the Government of India”. Though there is no official ban, the book is not available in Maharashtra and elsewhere for many months.
Film: Mira Nair’s Kamasutra and Madhuri Dixit’s appearance in Khalnayak raise questions of obscenity and vulgarity; Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen is challenged by the film censor board for its violence and the debate it fuels on caste; Mani Ratnam’s film, Bombay, on Hindu-Muslim riots, draws controversy.
1998: screenings of Deepa Mehta’s Fire are disrupted, the film-maker threatened and cinema halls attacked by protestors. The Shiv Sena led most of these protests. In 2000, Mehta and her crew are prevented from filming ‘Water’, on the grounds that her portrayal of child brides is offensive to Hindu sentiments.
Art: 1996: Paintings made by MF Husain in the 1970s and 1980s of Saraswati, Bharat Mata and other Indian deities come under attack after Hindu nationalist groups target the artist. In 1998, Husain’s house is attacked by Bajrang Dal activists. By 2006, the artist goes into exile, after exhibitions of his paintings have faced repeated attacks and after multiple cases have been filed against him in courts across the land by Hindu rightwing groups.
Any book that misrepresented India’s borders was confiscated by Customs and released only after the offending frontiers had been manually “corrected”.
April 1989: Hindu militants threatened to kill M.M. Kalburgi, an Indian historian, for writing a Kannada-language book they claim blasphemes a 12th century saint. Kalburgi was given 24-hour protection by police in Dharwar in the southern state of Karnataka. A group of 43 Kannada writers and academics formed a committee in support of the book.
April 1989: customs authorities black out passages critical of Indira Gandhi’s regime in 500 imported copies of the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopaedia: World History from 1800 to the Present Day.
1988: On October 5 1988, the Indian Finance Ministry announced the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses under Section 11 of the Indian Customs Act, adding that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”. As with Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Ramayana and Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana Retold, this ban set a precedent, legal and cultural, for taking offended sentiments into consideration as a justification for banning a book.
October 1987: Maharashtra High Court bans Dr BR Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism, an examination and questioning of some aspects of the faith, after some Hindu groups protest. In 1998, Dalit groups take out a Bheem March in Bombay, protesting the failure of the courts to lift the ban.
1986: PM Antony’s controversial play, The Sixth Holy Wound of Christ, is banned in Kerala after months of protests and debate. The play is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.
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.
1980: Writer Mridula Garg was arrested on charges of obscenity for a passage in her Hindi novel, Chitta Cobra. After two years in court, the charges were dropped.
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.
1974: Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder banned two years after it pulls in full houses across Bombay. The Bombay High Court order overturning the ban is considered a landmark free speech judgement. Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal was also often challenged and banned in the 1970s.
Nehru, A Political Biography by Michael Edwards. Banned: Dec 13, 1975
India Independent by Charles Bettelheim. Banned: May 15, 1976
Who Killed Gandhi by Lourenco De Sadvandor. Banned: Dec 29,
The most important ban of this decade, in retrospect, was the ban on Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama.
Wolpert’s analysis of Gandhi’s assassination had nothing to do with the Ramayana — it was his research into the gaps in the security arrangements surrounding the Mahatma, and the suggestion of conspiracy theories, that attracted the state’s censorship. This set a second, and equally dangerous, precedent, allowing the state to consider banning books that might deliver inconvenient insinuations about any ruling government.
Key book bans: Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert. Banned: Sept 1, 1962
The Jewel in the Lotus (A Historical Survey of the Sexual Culture of the East). Banned: July 20, 1968
The Evolution of the British Empire and Commonwealth from the American Revolution by Alfred Le Ray Burt. Banned: Aug 9, 1969
A Struggle between Two Lines over the Question of How to Deal with US Imperialism by Fan Asid-Chu, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1965. Banned: Dec 6, 1969
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.
1958: In a rare case, the Supreme Court banned DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the grounds of obscenity. In the absence of a process of review, the ban may still be in force.
1956: Now almost forgotten, Aubrey Menen was at one time something of a standard-bearer for his generation, known for the elegance of his mind and his somewhat baroque work. Ramayana Retold was a deconstruction of the Ramayana, told with Menen’s trademark refusal to respect pedestals and the icons that stood on them. In the 1950s, this became one of the first books to be banned by the Indian government on the grounds that it might offend religious sensibilities — opening the door to future displays of competitive intolerance.
March 1953: You Made Me A Communist, a popular Malayalam play, is banned by the government alleging that the play propagated “subversive ideas” and encouraged the people to “rebel against the government”. The ban is overturned in two months.
American Military Aid to Pakistan (its full implications) by Salahuddin Ahmad. Banned: July 31, 1954
What Has Religion Done for Mankind, Watch-tower Bible and Tract Society, New York. Banned: Feb 26, 1955
Dark Urge by Robert W. Taylor. Banned: Dec 29, 1955
The Ramayana by Aubrey Menen. Banned: Sept 29,
Captive Kashmir by Aziz Beg. Banned: April 19, 1958
The Heart of India by Alexander Campbell. Banned: March 11, 1959
The 1940s: British India/ Independent India
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 status of these books in India remains uncertain. Some are still banned; in other cases, the bans have been overturned, but information on these is not freely available. In many cases, the book in question has dated and become irrelevant with the passage of time; in a few cases, the book remains relevant and what was once incendiary has now become innocuous.
Scented Garden (Anthropology of sex life in the Levant) by Bernhard Stern; translated by David Berger. Banned: August 18, 1945
Behind the Iron Curtain in Kashmir: Neutral Opinion (author not mentioned). Banned: Aug 27, 1949
The 1930s: Banned Books Under the Raj
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.
Hindu Heaven by Max Wylie. Banned: April 28, 1934
The Face of Mother India by Katherine Mayo. Banned: January 18, 1936
Old Soldier Sahib by Private Frank Richards Banned: Aug 22, 1936
The Land of the Lingam by Arthur Miles. Banned: Oct 2, 1937