Serial Bus

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A Book-Banning Nation

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I can imagine a lot of things that could really harm us – like nuclear bombs, cigarettes and speeding vehicles. But books? I have never known a book that exploded as soon as you read the preface. I feel sorry for the gentlemanly Jaswant Singh who has been thrown under the bus by his colleagues for publishing a book (Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence) that does not demonize Jinnah. I feel sorrier that a society could be so intolerant of books. Books?!!

Democracies are uniquely defined by an unwavering commitment to freedom of expression. Of course, individual liberty is the other side of the same coin. One person’s freedom of expression should not encroach upon another’s liberty in a personally derogatory or untruthful manner. Within those bounds, any form of expression is defensible. Then again, written word is the most placid form of expression. Here is a book, a journal or a newspaper – read it or avert your eyes – it is a clear choice that every person can make for oneself. If you are prone to provocation, do not read it – if you are good at separating chaff from grain, read it and decide whether to denounce it or uphold it. But, for God’s sake, do not ask the government to ban it just because it is rumored to shatter your long-held beliefs. A book-banning nation is worse than a book-burning nation; the latter at least allows the people the choice between burning them and reading them.

Let us consider the popular arguments expressed for banning books. A book banning enthusiast will point out how a non-fiction book is full of baseless claims and lies; if it’s fiction, it could be denounced as heretical and provocative. In reality, people call for books to be banned to gain political mileage or to feed their insecurities. The more serious argument is whether there is some merit in evoking negative experiences and if such disclosures / plots could conceivably benefit mankind. How would Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead give any hope if violence is frowned upon universally and how would Nabokov’s Lolita help anyone if pedophilia is abhorred across the world. For books based on actual events, I think there is a clear case for publication, however heinous the story is. Mankind owes a debt to every person who has been in the line of fire to hear him / her out – it could be child abuse, violence, racism, corruption – it deserves a hearing, period! There is also a documentary benefit – as what happened in the past serves as a beacon to the future. If this argument holds, it can actually be extended to fiction also, as a novelist inevitably draws inspiration from various life experiences too. Also, fiction sometimes helps us visualize what we do not want to see happening and spurs us into action. Orwell’s 1984 and Rand’s Anthem are examples of books that certain governments may have labeled as ‘far-fetched’ but they alerted many of the risks of communism by painting a ludicrously extreme possibility. A nation that believes in banning books is hurtling towards the Orwellian 1984-like world and is too obstinate to admit it. That said, people still have a right to oppose a book but they ought to voice their dissent peacefully instead of declaring war against the inanimate thing.

In any case, the government should act as a dispassionate referee and uphold the spirit of the fundamental rights granted by Constitution (or amend a Constitution where such a right is not provided). Sadly, governments are sometimes weak defenders of the ideals they espouse (e.g. banning of Satanic Verses in India). In other cases, governments are themselves conspirators because a critique of powers-that-be must not go unpunished. A good example is the British government’s decision to ban Paine’s Common Sense as it struck at the very root of imperialism. However, the very act of banning something makes it more fascinating. Courtiers of King George III could be forgiven for not understanding how their counsel to ban Common Sense could have actually accelerated the ouster of British from America.

Long back, I remember being appalled when I first noticed that the world depicts India’s map without the bigger western and smaller eastern flanks of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s northern-most state. Since childhood, I had been fed government propaganda on how the entire J&K was an ‘akhand’ (indivisible) part of India. While India may have had a sanguine claim on the territory, it definitely was not ‘indivisible’ – the two pieces of land have been, in fact, under Pakistani and Chinese control for a long while. I wish NCERT did not attempt to indoctrinate children in a make-believe world of India’s righteousness and the villainy of our neighbors. Even now, once every while, the GoI expresses displeasure when any foreign agency depicts India’s boundaries differently that the Surveyor General of India.

The same theme permeates the Indian attitude towards Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Our school textbooks and government propaganda glorify the role of Gandhi and Nehru in achieving India’s independence, while painting Jinnah as a smug communal partition-mongering villain. Congress’s strategic errors in sidelining Jinnah are conveniently forgotten. A brilliant exposition of the true history of India’s partition is captured in the book ‘Liberty or Death’ by Patrick French – again, Congress party activists chose to burn copies of the book as it brought out several niceties of Jinnah from under the carpet and several foibles of Gandhi-Nehru duo from inside the closet. None of the reactionaries perhaps bothered to notice that all claims in the book were thoroughly researched and indexed.

Jaswant Singh has probably committed the same scholarly crime of backing up his theories with solid evidence. But, he also happens to be a senior member of the BJP, a party that has, of late, been rudderless and directionless. As the party moved from being right-wing to centrist in its approach towards the end of nineties, the strategy paid dividends and it formed a government at the centre. However, owing to two resounding defeats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and 2009, there are hawks in the party that want to reclaim the hindutva / nationalist agenda to rally the party’s base. In such an environment, the party sacrificed Jaswant Singh at the altar of its ambitions. The sad thing for BJP is that people are beginning to see beyond the veneer. People will notice that if they are placing realpolitik over truth, they could as well place the Ram Mandir above communal harmony. At the end, for all the brouhaha, more people will have read the book (a Pakistani colleague ordered the book online yesterday as his interest was piqued by  the commotion), although the purported objective of the book-banners was to keep the masses safe from its ‘dangerous’ content.

As for banning it, so far the central government has not complied with demands of censorship by the BJP activists, so their only resort is to light a bonfire of the book’s copies to express their chagrin. That, ironically, will only help boost sales of the book as for every copy they burn, ten more would be bought and read by curious onlookers. I would also expect the book-burners to buy the copies they intend to burn. Only if they could spare some time read it before committing it to the flames!

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Written by serialbus

August 22, 2009 at 9:36 pm

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