A.G. Noorani

Banning books

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A new form of censorship has emerged, targeting the foreign author

BOOK banning is akin to book burning, emblematic of Hitler’s Germany. It assumes various forms — ban under the Customs Act, 1962, to prevent its import into the country; under the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973; the extra-legal fiat by state officials to publishers and booksellers to suppress its circulation; mob violence that vandalises authors’ homes or publishers’ offices.

A new form of book banning has emerged, targeting the foreign author. Not long ago, one of the most distinguished scholars on Hinduism, Wendy Doniger, had to bear the brunt of the RSS-BJP brigade’s onslaught on her work, The Hindus. More recently, it was the turn of the eminent Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Audrey Truschke for her book, Aurangzeb.

Such a balanced work was long overdue, but the charge against her was that she was trying to “rehabilitate Aurangzeb” and “whitewash his sins”. Scheduled to give a talk, entitled “Unpopular stories: narrating the Indo-Islamic past and navigating present-day prejudices”, in Hyderabad in August, the organiser could not find a venue in that large city known for its rich cultural past. On two occasions, a venue was fixed, only to be cancelled a few days after booking. First it was scheduled to be held at the Art Gallery. Then the B.M. Birla Science Centre was fixed at the venue, only for it to revoke permission. The venue owners likely backed out due to pressure from groups like Bajrang Dal.

The director of the B.M. Birla Science Centre, B.G. Siddharth, unctuously told the press, “We have received a request for the auditorium to hold the talk but we politely declined. Further, we understand that the speech would attack some gods of India. Such controversial talks should have prior police permissions. Since they don’t have that, permission was denied.” The convenor of Bajrang Dal, Kalaish Sajjan, said, “We do not know if her considerations are authentic, and considering her track record of being critical of Hinduism, we oppose her talk.”

The RSS set up the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1964 to capture the Babri Masjid. It, in turn, set up the Bajrang Dal as its spear arm to accomplish its nefarious ends by violence. Denial of permission for the talk reflects poorly on the political system. It installs the police as censors, which is bad enough, and bans a speech before it is delivered.

Truschke said that the organisers had been informed by the Hyderabad police of several letters protesting her appearance, the only letter she saw was written by an individual who claimed connections to the RSS and BJP. She described it as a “sad day for the pursuit of knowledge and academic freedom”. Descriptions of her work suggest that it deserves a wide readership around the world wherever Mughal history is taught.

In an interview with the author in The Telegraph (India), Upala Sen writes: “Trus­chke states that the period of Aurangzeb’s reign was very well documented. Aurangzeb and his expansionist thirst, Aurangzeb as a pious Muslim, Aurangzeb the able administrator under whose reign the number of Hindus in the bureaucracy increased, Aurang­zeb who protected temples and also destroyed them, Aurangzeb who loved music and mangoes....”

But, Truschke says, “A major point of that [scholarship] was to make the British look better. … The villainisation of Aurangzeb, projecting him to be this Islamic bigot, is bad history but it is a good storyline if you are trying to achieve Hindu rashtra.”

This new form of intolerance reflects the political and religious intolerance which the RSS has spread over the last two decades. In January 2004, the Bhandakar Oriental Research Institute in Pune was vandalised by the Shiv Sena and other groups and a highly respected scholar Bahulkar was subjected to harassment by the mob. The Mahara­shtra government prosecuted the American Indolo­gist James Laine for his book Shivaji. The investigation was stopped by the supreme court.

An official of the central government asserted a right to hold up a book at Customs because, in his weighty opinion, “It has incorrect facts on Sardar Patel”. Dalvir Singh, the commissioner of Aircargo in New Delhi, was referring to The British Raj in India written by two scholars of excellent credentials — civil servant during the Raj, Pakistani diplomat and professor, Samuel M. Burke, and Salim Al-Din Quraishi of the British Library.

Libraries are full of books that contain ‘incorrect facts’ on Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Azad. Will the government try to ‘weed’ them out?

All this violates a fundamental right of the Indian citizen — the right to know. The Customs Act provides no judicial tribunal to adjudicate on the ban. Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code provides that a ban by a state government can be challenged before a three-judge bench of the high court. This remedy must be extended to all bans — official, police and ones on film.

Courtesy Dawn

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