Ban the ban

In addition to ‘The Satanic Verses’, here are ten books that India needs to unban now

It’s time to put a stop to India’s ridiculous obsession with banning books.

On Saturday, senior Congress leader and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram admitted that the ban on Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was unjust. “I have no hesitation in saying that the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book was wrong,” he said.

The proscription was imposed 27 years back, in 1988, when Chidambaram was the Minister of State Home Affairs in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. The novel had outraged conservative Muslim opinion when it was published.

Asked why it took him so long to say something that many would consider obvious, Chidambaram said, “If you had asked me 20 years ago, I would have told you the same thing.” The reply didn’t satisfy Rushdie who tweeted: “This admission just took 27 years. How many more before the ‘mistake’ is corrected?”

While this has become a familiar Bharatiya Janata Party-Congress battle, Rushdie’s sarcastic question is the nub of the matter: when will the ban be lifted? Chidambaram remembered his liberal playbook neatly when his party is out of power. And though the BJP has made Muslim appeasement into a mass electoral issue, it has not removed the ban on The Satanic Verses despite leading a government at the Centre for almost eight years.

But it’s not just The Satanic Verses . India has banned scores of books, whether for hurting religious sentiments ­or because they broached political and historical controversies. India is an odd sort of democracy, which clamps down on the very lifeblood of democracy: free speech. Here is a list of 10 books that central and state governments need to unban immediately.

1. Unarmed Victory, Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer and political activist. He also starred in a Hindi film with a three-minute cameo advising Rajendra Kumar on how to help the victims of the WWII atomic bombings in Japan.

His pacifist views, though, managed to anger India when he criticised it over the 1962 Indo-China war in the book, Unarmed India. India quite remarkably banned the book by one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century.

2. The Polyester Prince, Hamish McDonalds
The political clout of the Ambanis is so widespread that by now that it is a familiar topic of humour. In 2013, the Unreal Times, a satirical news website, ran a piece which spoke of a demand for the Ambani residence in Mumbai, Antilla, to be declared a separate state altogether.

A direct result of that power has resulted in Hamish McDonald’s book being banned. The Polyester Prince details Dhirubai Ambani’s rise as a tycoon and levels a number of allegations of corruption against him.

3. Nine Hours to Rama, Stanley Wolpert
The book, a fictionalised account of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination written by the University of California historian, Stanley Wolpert, was banned in 1962. Wolpert’s research had shown that the home ministry had provided poor security to Gandhi at the time of his assassination and hinted at a possible conspiracy.

4. The Ramayana, Aubrey Menen
An irreverent retelling of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, the book was banned by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in 1956 on the ground that it would hurt religious sentiments.

5. Rangila Rasul
Published anonymously by a member of the Arya Samaj in Lahore in 1927, the book raised hackles for attacking Prophet Mohammed. The chain of events it set off included riots in Lahore, courts cases, murders and the creation of India’s blasphemy law that still exists on the books.

6. Shivaji – Hindu King in Muslim India, James Laine
An academic study of Shivaji, the book was banned in Maharashtra and Gujarat for repeating a snide remark about Shivaji. At the time, 150 people had ransacked the office of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune.

7. An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul
Probably the only book to be banned in Indian written by a Nobel laureate, An Area of Darkness was bitterly critical of the country. Among other things, it castigated India for not knowing how to make cheese. It was banned in 1964.

8. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld
Great Soul is a layered biography of the Mahatma but got sensationalised when many reviewers and readers misinterpreted it and thought it hinted at Gandhi having a homosexual relationship.

The author himself shot down any such suggestions and made it clear that he had not commented on Gandhi’s sexuality. However, it was too late. The chain of events meant that Chief Minister Narendra Modi banned the book in Gujarat in 2011.

As Gujarat chief minister, Modi had also banned Jaswant Singh’s biography of Jinnah for allegedly insulting Vallabhbhai Patel, but a court order overturned the ban.

9. Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence
First published in 1928 and banned by the Raj, the book is still proscribed in India even 50 years after Britain lifted the ban in 1960.

In 1964, bookseller Ranjit Udeshi in Mumbai was prosecuted for selling the book. The Supreme Court upheld that “community standards” were important in determining what is obscene and Lady Chatterly’s Lover failed those standards.

10. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Peter Heehs
An extremely well-regarded biography of Bengali revolutionary-turned-ascetic Aurobindo, the book ran into trouble with modern devotees for refusing to accept the saint’s divinity. “To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith”, Hees wrote, adding that “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma”.

In response to being called dogmatists, some Aurobindo devotees filed a case in the Orissa High Court asking for a ban on the book in 2008 and got it.

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