There is an oppressive climate of intolerance towards dissent and free speech in West Bengal today. In an act of crude censorship, the government recently removed several newspapers from over 2,480 public libraries that it runs, aids or sponsors. Now, the police have arrested two people, including a professor from Jadavpur University, for allegedly defaming Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee through a cartoon they posted on a social networking site. These are blatant acts of authoritarianism that mock at constitutional values and freedoms and deserve to be condemned. The decision to purge the public library system of most mass circulation Bengali dailies and English language newspapers reflects a deep-seated contempt for democratic values. This has been done, ironically, under the guise of developing free thinking among readers. But the Chief Minister has only to read the Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association to understand how far removed her government's views are from civilised practice. “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation,” the charter states, affirming the right of readers to have access to all shades of opinion. Specifically, nothing should be excluded because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. What makes the decision of the West Bengal government particularly offensive is its calculated approach to suppressing ideas and information.

If democracy is to flourish, the public library system must be insulated from censorship. The Centre should strengthen the role of libraries and make their collections mandatorily inclusive. India's public libraries must be governed by a specific freedom charter that spells out their rights and those of readers. This can be done by making it mandatory for libraries to consult the community they serve through public hearings, and acquire publications based on local demand. Such principles are universal, and even titles that are not available at a given moment can be specially requested by readers. The repressive orders in West Bengal are aimed at chilling independent thought. School textbooks have been rewritten to remove the philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels because Ms. Banerjee has so decreed. And now, citizens are being arrested for merely lampooning leaders. State governments invariably pursue the goal of control of the media, and their favourite tool is grant or denial of government advertisements to bring about self-censorship. But in West Bengal, an era of a more direct assault on free speech seems to have begun. It needs a strong response from democratic forces.

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