The Gujarat government does not seem to have learnt any lessons from its aborted misadventure. Its ban of expelled BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammad Ali Jinnah was summarily struck down by the Gujarat High Court. Yet, the Narendra Modi government persists with the idea of issuing a second ban notification. The reason for such obstinacy in the face of a chorus of scathing public criticism is not hard to seek. It has little to do, as some BJP leaders’ claim, with the book’s alleged eulogising of Jinnah or its alleged censure of Sardar Patel. The ban notification came a mere two days after the book was released and it is doubtful whether anyone of consequence in the Gujarat government had even so much as bothered to read it. The cynical calculation was that banning the book will go down well with its core constituency — one that nurtures a strong sense of historical grievance about a range of issues from the nature of rule in medieval India to Partition in 1947. In its unseemly haste to ban the book, the State government overlooked providing the ostensible grounds for the ban, thereby failing to explain why it was “against national interest” or how it could affect the “tranquillity of the public.” While striking down the ban because of this technical flaw, the Court sent a strong message, censuring the government for “non-application of mind” and the haste in proscribing the book.
Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure empowers State governments to declare newspapers, books, and documents “forfeited” if they are seditious, obscene, promote disharmony between groups, disturb public tranquillity, or outrage religious feelings, thereby violating various sections of the Indian Penal Code. None of these conditions obtain in the Jinnah biography case. Preserving public tranquillity is routinely invoked to ban films and books, even though the courts — as reflected in the landmark Ore Oru Gramathile case — have generally refused to allow free speech to be restricted in the face of official claims that the law and order situation would be affected. Jaswant Singh’s book — a scholarly account of Jinnah’s life — had posed no law and order threats. The idea that books on history should reflect received opinion or fit into some ideological straightjacket springs from bigotry and intolerance. As the Bombay High Court astutely observed in a 1983 case, “It will be very difficult for the State to contend that a narration of history would promote violence, enmity or hatred.” If such material is prevented from being published or distributed, the “nation will have to forget its own history and, in due course, the nation will have no history at all.”