India- the largest democracy in the world, is also on the way of becoming one of the most insular societies when it comes to embracing diversity of intellectual material produced. In a country where politics still thrives on fanning people’s compelling need to identify themselves with either a religion or an ethnicity, the government bans all that it can. Any piece of creativity that stands in the slightest position of threatening the deeply sensitive secular fabric of the nation is likely to succumb to the pressures exerted by the government in the form of either stringent censorship or unforgiving bans.
The brunt of bans has been increasingly borne by the books- written and circulated in India. Any piece of work which ‘hurts’ sentiments, displays ‘obscenity’ or presents a ‘threat’ to national security is banned. However, banned books often cannot be brought under the ambit of the aforementioned ploys. Religious communities, ethnic groups and historical figures are all beyond the scope of incisive analysis in books, even when assisted with empirical evidences. A glaring example of this would be the ban on Peter Heehs’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published by the Columbia University Press in New York. Heehs, in his scholarly pursuits, has explored and scrutinized the life of the remarkable martyr in great depths and the book is a product of laborious research on the documented pieces of his life. Ironically, this book cannot be gained access to in India, because of Heehs’s claim that even though Aurobindo’s assiduity in reclaiming India from the clutches of its colonizers has been unparalleled, it’s highly unlikely that Aurobindo possessed supernatural powers. This contention invited the wrath of dogmatic followers of Aurobindo, and a hasty and hassled ban invoked on the book by the Orissa High Court.
Another illustration of the intolerance exhibited towards the written word and a resultant ban is Salman Rushdie’s work in The Satanic Verses, and the continuing hostile campaign against the book which prevented the writer from making an appearance in the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. The cases of antagonism verging on violence, to express angst against books which challenge the deep-seeded notions of public opinion, haven’t been sparse in their occurrence. Tasleema Nasreen was victimized in a similar way at the Kolkata Book Fair, leading to an intervention in the release of her book Nirbashan.
It’s not just the imperious followers that cause such bans. The State is unabashedly illiberal in shutting off books that it deems to be threatening to the nation’s well-being and its policies, thereby invading all spaces for dissent. The Moor’s Last Sigh was temporarily banned after Shiv Sena protested that a character in the book resembled its leader Bal Thackeray. Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence by Jaswant Singh in which he praises the founder of Pakistan was banned by the BJP-ruled Gujarat government in August 2009 claiming that it contained “derogatory” references to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The ban was later revoked after a re-examination by the Gujarat High court.
Thus bans can be understood as a cause and an effect of lack of objectivity and rigour in discussing elements of our past which contradict the image of ‘The Great Indian Nation’ as we had so proudly imagined ourselves to be. Banning anything that displays the slightest of threats to ‘national and religious’ sentiments, by labelling it as obscene or blaspheme, is just another way of promoting cowardice and discouraging plurality in dialogue and evading challenging dispositions that may surface.
Banned Books Through History to the Present Day
This infographic takes a look at some well-known books that have been banned throughout history right up to the present day. While delving into some little-known facts about bizarre bans of seemingly harmless publications among other things.