Ever since the horrific incident at Charlie Hebdo, the echo of ‘freedom of expression’ has grown louder. In India it peaked around March, also the time when the much debated Leslie Udwin documentary was banned. Now outrage in a nation that has 1.2 billion, too many of us actually is nothing unexpected. What is unexpected is the Rip Van Winkle attitude of our outraging specialists. Rip Van Winkle was asleep for 40 years. But here the slumber has been too long. 67 years to be precise. Now with the ‘leaked’ trailer of Mohalla Assi, and reactions to the abusive word, the harangue of free speech is beginning to start all over again.
In the beginning of the year there was also a ban on AIB roast that had almost taken the ‘liberals’ of the nation by shock. How ‘free’ has ‘free speech’ been in India? Our date with bans runs into the distant past. In this two part series, let us look at the various bans. Is ban a culture in India? Or is it something the Modi government invented overnight?
The ban on Rangila Rasul was imposed in 1927 and even as we talk about Charlie Hebdo and the murder of bloggers in Bangladesh, we forget to mention the publisher of this book. Rajpal , who was based in Lahore had fiercely shielded the identity of the writer of the book and was imprisoned for 5 years. He was later stabbed to death.
Rangila Rasul also paved the way to the Hate Speech Law Section 295 (A), probably done by the British to appease the minority community. (It is needed to note that Hindusim originally doesn’t have the word ‘blasphemy’ in its dictionary) . The hate speech law in turn led to a series of bans at various levels. It is necessary to point out – Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindu Gods was not the only book that was banned in India for offending religious believers.
Rashida Jahan, an Urdu writer back in the 1930’s had started a new chapter for women writers in the country. However she is largely remembered for her book Aangarey which was banned under the same 295 (A) back in 1932. She was also threatened by members of her own community. Aangarey dealt with the sexual hypocrisy of the men of her region and was condemned as it was a ‘filthy pamphlet.’
Rashida Jahan’s book soon found company and in 1933 Dr. D’Avoine was arrested for his essay on ‘Religion and Morality’ as it was said to have offended the Roman Catholic community. The judge however found no reason to impose a 295 A on his work. Saadat Hasaan Manto, today a favorite with us was put under various trials in pre- independent India. His works were said to be obscene.
There is however no reason to think that the Congress government of independent India behaved any differently. Their current Vice President Mr. Rahul Gandhi might say, ‘Free speech is our right. We will fight any attempt to crush dissent and debate’, but this hasn’t been a very strong point with the party he represents. 1964 for example wasn’t a very good year for ‘free speech’ in India.
VS Naipaul’s (also refer to Karnad Vs Naipaul debate on Indian secularism. An interesting point) travelogue An Area of Darkness was immediately banned for its ‘sordid’ portrayal of India as a poor and dark nation. It is therefore laughable for the current opposition party to swoon in shock over the banning of India’s Daughter in 2015. How can something that was ‘national pride’ in 1964 become ‘fascism’ in 2015?
It was also 1964 when a sudden crackdown on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on accounts of it being obscene had happened (it is laughable to mention that the book was published almost 30 years back). It is said that the police would send people to bookstores who would in turn pose as buyers and ask for copies of the book. Action would be taken if the books were found.
Coming back to Doniger’s book, how could one prevent the ban of the book? Has anyone ever asked the question? What made Batra’s claim so legitimate that the publishers had to bend. A country which has had the history of banning two of Rushdie’s books – Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh and even locked out Rushdie from Literary fests in India should have taken Doniger’s case more calmly. If you are giving into demands of one section, the other sections have every right to ask for their share.
The ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhondito cannot be overlooked too. The communist regime of West Bengal were quick to spot the impending doom in coming elections and as part of their long history of appeasement had banned the book.
However when deplorable suppression of Perumal Murugan happened, the communists had turned into sudden liberals (without even realizing what a mismatch the two words are when put side by side).
What would the Gandhian’s say about Gujarat government’s ban on Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi? It allegedly questions the sexuality of the Mahatma and was banned in 2011 (Modi’s Gujarat thought it was wrong to paint Gandhi on a wrong note). There’s wasn’t much noise about it. So is it safe to say that India has a lot of ‘holy cow’ moments? What is the reason that stories on Shirin Dalvi’s and Joe D’Cruz’s oppression do not find the outrage or the space in columns?
And to remind Congress of their reactions to books that did not suit them; Abhishek Manu Singhvi had said The Red Sari contained ‘‘untruths, half-truths, falsehoods and defamatory statements’.
The history of bans actually runs too deep in our culture (and why ours? A quick research would list books that are banned worldwide) and is not a recent invention.
In search of more Rip Van Winkle moments I will continue with the second part – Fifty shades of Grey, Unfreedom and Freedom of visuals.