Anyone remotely familiar with the Shiv Sena knows that it routinely attempts to thrust itself in the public eye by protesting stridently, and sometimes violently, against the contents of books, films, and paintings. However, its recent campaign against Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey — which resulted in the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel being withdrawn from Mumbai University's curriculum — has raised the question: Why did the Shiv Sena suddenly decide to target a work of fiction published two decades ago, which has been a part of the university's B.A. English literature syllabus for the last four years? The answer is this is in honour of Aditya Thackeray, recently inducted into politics by grandfather Bal Thackeray and appointed head of the Yuva Sena. The new youth wing chief and his party have argued that parts of this finely crafted, socio-politically sensitive novel — which is set in the early 1970s and revolves around a middle-aged Parsi bank clerk struggling to stay out of poverty — are offensive to the Shiv Sena and Marathi manoos. Such expressions of simulated hurt sentiment were used to justify the Sena's campaign of intimidation, which included burning the book on campus. Even more cynically, they were used to provide a platform for the young Mr. Thackeray to make a dramatic entry into politics.
Books have been banned before by governments on account of threats but it is unusual for a university to capitulate as meekly as Mumbai University did. Following the protest, the matter was referred to the Board of Studies, which recommended withdrawing the book from the syllabus — a decision Vice-Chancellor Rajan Welukar, who echoed some of the Sena's views about the novel, seemed tacitly to endorse. It is shameful that instead of standing up to political intimidation and preventing book-burners from influencing the curriculum, a reputed institution of higher learning cravenly abdicated its responsibility to foster and protect intellectual freedom, critical thinking, and creativity. Not surprisingly, Mr. Welukar and the university authorities have come in for strong criticism in Mumbai's academic circles. Another distasteful aspect of this episode is the stance of Maharashtra's Congress Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. Agreeing readily with the Sena that the novel contained abusive language, he has chosen to distance himself from the withdrawal issue — saying it was for the university to decide. In fact, the complicit attitudes of Maharashtra's major political parties only legitimise and strengthen the Sena's intolerance as it attempts to erode the shores that protect freedom of thought and expression in India.