Who is afraid of the written word? Almost everyone it seems, from the State to cultural and religious groups. In spite of being a free society, we have a long history of literary censorship, says Hasan Suroor.

You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom is the somewhat self-consciously rhetorical title of a new book by British journalist and free speech campaigner Nick Cohen. Mercifully, nobody has yet called for it to be banned but it's still early days and in the current climate of intolerance who knows when someone, somewhere might invoke “hurt feelings” to try and suppress it.

And it is this fear (that a writer could end up “offending” someone, somewhere) is what Cohen's book is about: how in an age of supposedly “unparalleled freedom” and free exchange of ideas, free speech faces a grave threat from intolerant religious and cultural groups on the one hand and stifling pro-rich privacy laws on the other. So grave is the threat, he argues, that you can actually “end up dead” for simply writing a book.

“The traditional opponents of freedom of speech — religious fanaticism, plutocratic power and dictatorial states — are thriving, and in many respects finding the world a more comfortable place in the early 21st century than they did in the late 20th,” the book argues.

This is best illustrated by the continuing campaign of harassment and intimidation of Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses, published over 20 years ago. The ugly scenes witnessed at the Jaipur Literature Festival where he was prevented from making an appearance or even addressing it through a video link despite the fact that the book is already banned in India and he has not broken any Indian law are a chilling reminder of what we are up against.

Barely days later, there was a replay of similar scenes at the Kolkata Book Fair. The target of attack this time was Tasleema Nasreen as a Muslim group — the All India Minority Forum — accusing her of “insulting Islam”, forcibly prevented the release of her new book Nirbashan (The Exile). The line of attack was the same as at Jaipur. Nasreen, they said, was “anti-Islam” and her publishers had “deliberately” organised the release of her book at the fair to “hurt” the community.

Faced with fear of violence, the organisers of the Fair, like their Jaipur counterparts, were left with no option but to give in. As an official of Publishers and Booksellers Guild put it they could “not risk” violence.

Indeed who would? And that's what has given sectarian groups and political agitators the licence to impose censorship at will. What happened in Jaipur and Kolkata is part of a wider and growing global culture of intolerance, though it's more acute on the subcontinent and in culturally more conservative societies.

Rushdie and Nasreen became victims of a particularly virulent form of Muslim extremism that, it must be remembered, coincided with the rise of an equally virulent form of the Hindu Right. The row over The Satanic Verses happened at the height of BJP's often menacing campaign to build a Ram temple on the site of Babri Masjid which then still existed. It is not a coincidence that the Muslim “leaders” such as Syed Shahabuddin who pressured the government into banning the book were the same lot who were leading the rival campaign to protect Babri Masjid. They were also emboldened by the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie.

Nasreen's troubles over Lajja were, in a sense, a fallout of the same phenomenon of which Rushdie had been a casualty: the rise of the mullahs on the subcontinent for a variety of reasons, both domestic and global. It is important to underline the context, especially of the Rushdie affair, because it is often assumed that Indian Muslims were always this intolerant. The fact is that until the Rushdie affair, Indian Muslims had not been involved in any major censorship row; and nor since then except over the Prophet's cartoons as part of wider global protests.

The history of literary censorship in India precedes the Rushdie affair with books, magazines, maps banned on grounds ranging from the “hurt” sentiments and “obscenity” to “threat” to national security. In fact, India's record in this respect is shameful for a vibrant, free and open society that it is in many ways.

Forget intolerant religious or cultural groups, it is the Indian state that has been the biggest culprit with its proclivity to ban anything that doesn't fit the official narrative. In the 1970s, it is reckoned, the largest number of banned books related to perceived misrepresentation of India's policies or its leaders. Books and foreign magazines such as Time and The Economist are routinely banned for depicting Kashmir as a disputed territory.

Indian customs have sweeping powers not to allow any printed material to enter the country that they deem “objectionable”. When the state itself is so illiberal and quick to shut out dissenting views, it can hardly be expected to act differently when confronted with illiberalism of others. No wonder the history of independent India is littered with banned titles, not to mention the books which were banned by the British and are still proscribed such as Hindu Heaven by Max Wylie. (1934); The Face of Mother India by Katherine Mayo (1936); Old Soldier Sahib by Private Frank Richards ( 1936); The Land of the Lingam by Arthur Miles ( 1937) and Scented Garden: Anthropology of Sex Life in the Levant by Bernhard Stern; translated by David Berger (1945). Together, they would perhaps take up a whole library shelf.

Here are some of the more prominent and lesser-known titles banned in India in recent years. The list doesn't include language books except Lajja originally published in Bengali.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in which he uses magical realism to fictionalise one of the most controversial and disputed episodes in Islam. Banned in 1988 after Muslims protested that it was “blasphemous” and offended their religious sentiments. His 1995 novel The Moor's Last Sigh was temporarily banned after Shiv Sena protested that a character in the book resembled its leader Bal Thackeray.

Lajja by Taslima Nasreen about religious extremism and set against the backdrop of anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh as a reaction to the demolition of Babri Masjid was banned in 1993 for “offending” Muslim sentiments.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, ran into troubled with the University of Mumbai which dropped it from its English syllabus in 2010 after Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's family alleged that it contained “derogatory” remarks about Maharashtrians.

The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani by Hamish McDonald, an unauthorised biography making controversial claims about how Dhirubhai built his business empire was banned in 1988 after the Ambanis threatened legal action, calling it defamatory.

Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence byJaswant 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. Barely a month later, the ban was overturned by the Gujarat High Court which ruled that the government's notification lacked “thinking and understanding” and there was no ground to ban it.

Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Edwards, who makes sweeping comments about Nehru such as that his life was a “series of dependences (sic) on stronger characters than his own” was proscribed in 1975; and India Independent by French historian and economic Charles Bettelheim, critical of Indian Government's policies, was banned in 1976.

Who Killed Gandhi by Lourenco De Sadvandor described as inflammatory and poorly researched was banned in 1979.

The Price of Power: Kissinger and Nixon in the White House by American journalist Seymour Hersh, who described former Prime Minister Morarji Desai as a “star performer” for the CIA, was temporarily banned in 1983.

An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul, published in 1964, was immediately banned for its negative portrayal of India and its people.

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence remains banned in India on grounds of “obscenity” more than 50 years after Britain lifted the ban in 1960.

The Heart of India by Alexander Campbell, who was Time magazine's correspondent in New Delhi in the 1950s, is a fictionalised and often hilarious account of Indian bureaucracy and economic policies. Published 1958, it was banned by the Indian government in 1959 on grounds of being “repulsive”.

Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert about how Nathuram Godse planned Mahatma Gandhi's assassination was banned in 1962 for suggesting security failure leading to the killing.

The Ramayana by Aubrey Menen was banned in 1956 for offending Hindu sentiments because of the “liberties” he allegedly took with the sacred text. More recently, The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, and Paula Richman's Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia featuring Ramanujan's controversial work were dropped by Delhi university from its curriculum provoking accusations of censorship.

Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by American historian was banned in Maharashtra in 2004 for allegedly “promoting social enmity” after a violent attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune by a right-wing group. Supreme Court lifted the ban in 2010.

The True Furqan: The 21st century Quran, originally written in Arabic as al-Furqan al-Haqq, is attributed to authors who go by the pseudonyms of “Al Saffee” and “Al Mahdee” and was translated into English by Anis Shorrosh who described it as “a tool to liberate Muslims”. It was banned in 2005 following claims that it mocked Islam and was the work of American evangelists as part of a US-Israeli conspiracy.

It is a long and depressing list and one could go on….Even as one writes this, one can imagine Indian customs officials poring over the latest book consignment and ready to wield the red pencil in their zeal to protect religious sentiments, national security and shield their fellow citizens from “obscene” material.

And you can't watch this

It is not only the writers and books that are under attack from self-appointed vigilantes and hate campaigners. No form of free expression — theatre, cinema, art — is safe. Protests against plays, films, paintings deemed “offensive” are just as common — and often backed by threat of violence — as against books. There have been innumerable cases of plays being pulled, exhibitions being cancelled, television shows being dropped under pressure from Right-wing religious groups. Not long ago, Sikh groups in UK forced a Birmingham theatre company to abandon a play, “Bezhti”, alleging that it “demeaned” their faith because it was set in a gurudwara and featured scenes of rape and violence. The playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, herself a Sikh, was hounded and accused of “betraying” her faith — a la Rushdie and Nasreen.

In another case, the fundamentalist group Christian Voice tried to stop the BBC from screening “Jerry Springer: The Opera”, an irreverent musical take on Judeo-Christian themes, and when the BBC refused, they sought unsuccessfully to prosecute it under the (now defunct) Blasphemy Law. But what they could not achieve through legal means they managed to achieve through intimidation. Many theatres across Britain which had planned to stage it pulled out after Christian Voice and the racist British National Party threatened to picket them.

In a sign of how publishers and broadcasters are censoring themselves to stay out of trouble — a form of pre-censorship — the BBC dropped an animation film, “Popetown”, amid fears of offending Roman Catholics. The film featured a fictional character, Father Nicholas, who lives in Popetown (Vatican City) and works as the cartoon Pope's handler whose job is to “protect” the citizens from the “truth” that his boss is “stupid”.

A few years ago, the American online campaign website The Amboy Times published a “Blasphemy Collection” , a long list of some of the more high-profile cases of vigilantism, revealing that no group was in a position to cast the first stone — all having sinned at some point or the other.

Longer than you think

A list of books banned in India.

Hindu Heaven, Max Wylie (1934); The Face of Mother India, Katherine Mayo (1936); Old Soldier Sahib, Frank Richards (1936); The Land of the Lingam, Arthur Miles, (1937); Mysterious India, Moki Singh (1940); The Scented Garden (Anthropology of the Sex Life in the Levant), Bernhard Stern, translated by David Berger (1945); What has Religion done for Mankind, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (1955); Rama Retold, Aubrey Menen (1955); Dark Urge, Robert W. Taylor (1955); The Ramayana, Aubrey Menen (1956); Captive Kashmir, Aziz Beg (1958); The Heart of India, Alexander Campbell (1959); The Lotus and the Robot, Arthur Koestler (1960); Nine Hours to Rama, Stanley Wolpert (1962); Unarmed Victory, Bertrand Russell (1963); Nepal, Toni Hagen (1963); Ayesha, Kurt Frishchler, translated by Norman Denny (1963); Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence (1964); The Jewel in the Lotus (A Historical Survey of the Sexual Culture of the East), Allen Edwards (1968); The Evolution of the British Empire and Commonwealth from the American Revolution, Alfred Le Ray Burt (1969); A Struggle between Two Lines over the Question of How to Deal with U.S. Imperialism, Fan Asid-Chu (1969); Man from Moscow, Greville Wynne (1970); Early Islam, Desmond Steward (1975); Nehru: A Political Biography, Michael Edwards (1975); India Independent, Charles Bettelheim (1976); China’s Foreign Relations Since 1949, Alan Lawrence (1978); Who killed Gandhi, Lourenco De Sadvandor (1979); Understanding Islam through Hadis, Ram Swarup (1982); Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Sunanda Datta-Ray (1984); The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (1988); Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada, Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew (1989); The Polyester Prince, Hamish McDonald (1998); The True Furqan, “Al Saffee” and “Al Mahdee” (1999); Islam: A Concept of Political World Invasion, R.V. Bhasin (2007 – Maharashtra); Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, Joseph Lelyveld (2011 – Gujarat).

RELATED NEWS

At WorkSeptember 24, 2010

The Creative Writer: Conditional freedomMarch 3, 2012