In September 1956, the reprinting of a book first published in the United States in 1942, titled Living Biographies of Religious Leaders, written by Henry and Dana Lee Thomas, led to agitation and communal violence in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh (then Vindhya Pradesh) and West Bengal. The book, comprising short biographies of Moses, Luke, Joseph, Buddha, Prophet Muhammad and Gandhi, was not noticed in India in the years after the publication of its American edition. It was noticed only when printed in India as part of a collaboration agreement in 1955 between the original publisher and the Bombay-based Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan (BVB) specialising in low-price editions.

The book carried a foreword by KM Munshi, then the Governor of Uttar Pradesh. The agitation over the book, followed by riots that erupted when rumour spread that the Gita had been burnt and torn in Aligarh, led to the death of 15 (Nehru’s estimate)/23 people (Time magazine’s estimate), as hundreds more were arrested and curfew imposed in Aligarh and Jabalpur. When KM Munshi (who also happened to be the founder of BVB as well as a general editor of the series) was due to visit Bhopal in early September 1956, 5,000 people demonstrated against him, and he cancelled his visit. This was despite the fact that BVB had already announced that it was stopping the sale of the book, and that passages that had offended people would be removed in subsequent editions.

Actively and most visibly involved in the agitation were students of Aligarh Muslim University, the Vice-Chancellor of which, Zakir Husain (later to serve as India’s first Muslim president), had regretted the involvement of students of his university, reminding them that “…your action should have caused pain to the soul of the Prophet”.

What was found to be offensive in the book? The Siyasat Jadid (an Urdu newspaper from Kanpur edited, printed and published by KG Zaidi, also known as Ishaq Ilmi), reproduced, under the screaming headline “Take Up the Challenge! PROPHET INSULTED IN GOVERNOR MUNSHl’S PUBLICATION”, several passages from the book in several issues published between 28 August and 16 September 1956. These included a narrative to the effect that after seeing visions, and while attempting to ascertain their divine or satanic character, the Prophet sat in his wife Khadija’s lap as she put him to an “infallible test” by disrobing herself.

Although the 16-page chapter contained many complimentary references to the Prophet, and to Islam, the book also printed his portrait, and repeated many of the charges of promiscuity and violence that were…standard tropes in biographies of the Prophet written by Westerners in the 20th century. Time magazine, reporting the riots, commented: “This story jibes essentially with the earliest and standard account of Mohammed’s life (by Ibn Ishaq – 8th century), but the tone of the book’s 16-page biography might well give offense to devout Moslems.”

Nehru’s own opinion of the book, and one that he shared with other Indians at a public speech in Delhi delivered in end-September, after the riots, was that it was

“… not of a very high standard. It is a very ordinary book, neither well written nor good, a mere journalistic hotchpotch. Well, there must be people who read these things. Also, when I read it carefully, there is no doubt that some wrong facts and often absurd things have been written in the chapter on Hazrat Muhammad. It was wrong, there was no doubt about it. A Muslim would not have tolerated it, for even I could not tolerate it.”

So much for the review. Nehru then suggested what ought to be done about it; or to be more accurate, what ought not to be done about it:

“Anyhow, that does not mean that just because someone has written a useless book or said some wrong things we should fight among ourselves. Let us take whatever action we can regarding the book and try to have it banned or change the text or something. This is the sensible way of going about things instead of creating an uproar.”

Compared to communal rioting, it was banning, or removing the book from circulation by any other means, that was a far more preferable option.

By the time he made this speech, Nehru had already taken action against the book and conducted damage control on a number of fronts: he had written to KM Munshi more or less ordering him to withdraw the book, as it was “second–rate”, was causing him (Nehru) to be inundated with telegrams asking that the book be banned, and because it had raised a big issue not only in India but also in Pakistan. Nehru’s reprimand was unequivocal: “I think you should withdraw this book immediately and announce this fact. Presumably, you had not read the book, although you are a General Editor of the series.”

He also instructed Munshi to issue a press communiqué as he felt that a public statement on the matter was necessary. Nehru then communicated to the Chief Minister of Bombay, Morarji Desai, Maulana Azad’s suggestion that the publishers hand over remaining copies to the Bombay government. Seven thousand copies had been printed in all, of which 3,000 had already been sold. Even prior to this communication, BVB had already announced that they were stopping the sale of the book, and this announcement was released by the Director of Information of the Uttar Pradesh government, thereby reaching a larger audience. This did not, however, as we have seen earlier, stop riots in Aligarh and elsewhere in mid-September.

In the first week of September, after protest meetings were held at several places in Bihar (Bhagalpur, Arrah, Buxar and Gaya), and 6,000 Muslims participated in a procession at Patna, the Chief Minister, Dr Sri Krishna Sinha, ordered the contents of the book to be examined by law officers of his state government. Eventually, Bihar and West Bengal banned the book, although the Uttar Pradesh government refused to ban it, the Chief Minister, Sampurnanand, being unsure of the legality of such an action.

Sampurnanand also publicly expressed the opinion that “penal action will have to be decided by law, not by the desire of any individual”. In his opinion, legal action could be based on proof of “malicious intent” alone, and this would be difficult to prove. He did not contest that religious feelings had been hurt, but since the book had been withdrawn he thought legal action impossible.

Nehru responded to a letter by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister about the issue by agreeing that although the agitation over the book had begun some “dangerous trends”, slogan shouting per se could not be penalised as it was difficult to identify the culprit in a crowd. To the Chief Minister of (then) Vindhya Pradesh, Nehru also reiterated his view that it was the attitude of district officials that determined the intensity of a riot. Nehru asked the Chief Minister to make sure that the impression was not created that the government was partial (to Hindus) in communal matters.

In fact, Nehru kept all options open except for that of banning the book, which he considered to be “of very doubtful legality”, although he added that he was not much concerned about the law.

He also did not consider the demand for banning a bona fide one, considering that the book had been withdrawn by other means. Nehru repeatedly emphasised (in public meetings as well as in letters to Chief Ministers) that the agitation was manufactured by vested interests:

“I can understand people objecting to some passages in that book and drawing attention to them. But, there was something much deeper, and it was obvious that mischief was afoot and had been deliberately organised. The offending passages were broadcast in cyclostyled papers by the very persons who objected to them.”

Nehru’s faith in the freedom of the press – the communal organs of which he blamed for inciting the public by spreading “communal poison” – was shaken after this episode. Although he conceded the right of people to take offence, he found it worrying that during demonstrations against the book, some Muslims had raised slogans (such as “Pakistan Zindabad” [Long Live Pakistan]) that were “not only anti-national but also treasonable”. Nehru lamented that right-wing organisations such as the Jan Sangh and the Jamaat-e-Islami took advantage of situations such as these, and that “the freedom of the Press and of speech and our democratic Constitution spread out their wide umbrella to cover all this evil brood”.

Excerpted with permission from War over Words: Censorship in India, 1930-60, Devika Sethi, Cambridge University Press.