Ban as a political practice

Politics of ban

Print edition : April 03, 2015

In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government banned Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" as a pre-emptive step. India was the first country to ban the book. Photo: AP/PTI

Shiv Sena activists protesting against James Laine's "Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India" in Thane in July 2010. Photo: PTI

In 1933, the British government banned this collection of short stories on the grounds that it hurt Muslim sentiments.

In 2003, the CPI(M)-led government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasreen’s "Dwikhandito" over fears that it could incite communal discord in the State. Photo: V. Sudershan

Taslima Nasreen’s "Dwikhandito".

The practice of ban has been prevalent in India since the time of the British, through the many decades of Independence, and it continues to grow with a government driven by the Hindutva ideology at the Centre.

Ban as a means to regulate national consciousness is a political practice that has time and again made its presence felt in the Indian subcontinent. Right from the days of the British to the governments of various political hues that ruled independent India in the past 68 years, all have exercised this option at various points of time. There may have been nuances in the exercise of this option between the “liberal” Nehru-era Congress regimes in the early years of Independence, the blatantly authoritarian Indira Gandhi regime in the 1970s, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments in later years which were heavily influenced by groups and tendencies advocating cultural oppression and cleansing, but the fact remains that all of them have resorted to it at some time or the other.

The British government used the weapon of ban to prevent religious tensions among Indian communities. This helped them focus on their revenue policies while keeping religious leaders happy. The Khilafat Movement helped Muslims and Hindus to unite on a political platform against the British in the early 1920s. It is in this context that the British started to appease religious leaders selectively to their own advantage and used the instrument of ban effectively.

The British first tried to stir up communal tensions in 1924 by acquitting the publisher of a deliberately offensive Urdu booklet, Rangila Rasul, in court. It was written by a conservative Arya Samaj member, Raj Pal, who showed the Prophet as purportedly having relationships with many women. In 1933, the British government banned a collection of short stories titled Angaaray, written by a bunch of progressive writers such as Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan, on the grounds that it hurt Muslim sentiments. In 1936, the government banned the import of Katherine Mayo’s The Face of Mother India on the grounds of its anti-Hindu bias.

Hurt sentiments

A series of books were banned in British India with an underlying assumption that it hurt religious sentiments. They were on the basis of complaints from fringe groups that claimed to be representatives of different religions. In addition, the British banned books which they thought were sexually explicit. These books were considered offensive by flag-bearers of both Victorian morality and Indian traditions. The Land of the Lingam by Arthur Miles (1937), Mysterious India by Moki Singh (1940), and The Scented Garden: Anthropology of the Sex Life in the Levant by Bernhard Stern (1945) are cases in point.

The British, ostensibly to protect the private space of Indians, used the instrument of ban to create everlasting religious tensions and promote conservative groups in each religion. The literary critic Nilanjana Roy says in one of her articles: “The 1940s also saw early bannings of pamphlets containing material that was considered inflammatory to one or the other religion and politically seditious literature. In 1946, for example, the Customs notifications prohibited any reproduction of an issue of the journal Britannia and Eve, containing an article entitled Codijah the First and Devoted Wife of Mahomet, on the grounds that this might be offensive to the followers of Islam. Pamphlets offering a ‘neutral opinion’ of Kashmir were also banned, on the grounds that these opinions were not as neutral as they seemed.”

Clearly, the British state regulated and promoted a certain consciousness in the Indian colony. Independent India carried on this legacy of protecting “hurt sentiments” and used censorship politically. In fact, the very first amendment to the Indian Constitution moved by none other than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had an element advocating curbs on the freedom of speech. The amendment, moved on May 10, 1951, and passed by Parliament on June 18, 1951, imposed restrictions on the freedom of speech, citing its abuse. More importantly, it came in handy two and a half decades later to Indira Gandhi; it set the precedent for amending the Constitution to overcome judicial judgments that went against the government.

Nehru and ‘Crossroads’

The sequence of events that led to the first amendment was as follows. Crossroads, a left-leaning journal published by Romesh Thapar from Mumbai, had been prohibited entry and circulation in Madras by the then government as part of the overall ban on the Communist Party of India. Thapar contested this ban legally and won, with the Supreme Court declaring the Madras Maintenance of Public Safety Act, 1949, unconstitutional. The Communist Party had, at the time, declared war on the new dominion with the slogan “Yeh azadi jhooti hai” (This freedom is fake) and was directly battling the Indian Army in the Telangana region. Thapar, though not a card-carrying member of the party, was widely seen to be a communist sympathiser and, therefore, this decision by the Supreme Court greatly alarmed the administration. It was then that the Nehru regime moved the amendment which sought to curb what it termed was abuse of the freedom of speech and simultaneously overcome a judicial verdict that went against the interests of the government.

Even before this, the Congress regimes under Nehru had enforced cultural bans, and these were challenged in the court. In Bihar, a government order to restrict a political pamphlet was quashed by the Patna High Court. So liberal was India’s freedom of speech at the time that a judge on the case held that “if a person were to go on inciting murder or other cognisable offences either through the press or by word of mouth, he would be free to do so with impunity because he could claim freedom of speech and expression”. This is remarkably similar to the United States Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in the Brandenburg case, which held that the state cannot forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation unless the violence was intended, likely and imminent.

In Delhi, the government’s attempts at pre-censoring Organiser, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) mouthpiece, met with the same fate. The Supreme Court held the East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1950, under which the curbs were applied, to be unconstitutional. One of the first books to be banned was What has Religion Done for Mankind, which critiqued Eastern religions. Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold was banned in the 1960s.

Jingoism in the 1960s

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Indian state perceived great threats from Pakistan and China, the seeds of jingoism that plagues India now were sown. The Indian citizen had to be a nationalist and necessarily antagonistic towards its possible aggressors. Songs and films were made and books written in devotion of the nation. The government participated actively in creative processes to manufacture nationalistic consent. As a result, any diversion from this trend in creative works was frowned upon. Some of them were also banned.

Alexander Campbell’s The Heart of India was banned in 1959 for criticising the Indian bureaucracy. Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot was banned in 1960 for its apparent negative portrayal of Gandhi. In 1962, Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama was banned for the silly reason that it contained insinuations against the Indian state for the poor security around Mahatma Gandhi, which aided his killers. Bertrand Russell’s depiction of the Sino-Indian war in his book Unarmed Victory led to its ban in 1963. Thereafter, many books were banned amidst the Indian state’s drive to build a nationalistic consensus. “…[T]he real change in the sixties can be seen in the periodicals that appeared on the banned list. In addition to ‘incendiary’ and ‘anti-national’ journals from Pakistan, there was a spate of Tamil journals published in Ceylon, and magazines preaching revolution and sedition from France to Portugal to Rangoon (the famous Lushai Weekly), that were banned in India. By the end of the sixties, a few magazines and books from China were also on the contraband list,” says Nilanjana Roy.

The Emergency and after

However, the Emergency (1975-77) saw the Indian state actively collaborating in producing creative works. The government’s Films Division produced many short films that spoke favourably of the government. Most of the critical newspaper reports and pamphlets met with severe censorship. Artists were persecuted and any opposing stream of thought was severely suppressed. Michael Edwards’ Nehru: A Political Biography (1975) and Charles Bettelheim’s India Independent were banned during this period for criticising the government’s policies.

In the 1980s, a communally charged polity began to take shape with the Rajiv Gandhi government opening the locks of the disputed Babri Masjid, succumbing to the Hindu right wing’s demand. The Shah Bano case and later the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 polarised the polity on communal lines, making the creative sphere highly susceptible to censorship. India became the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. The ban on the import of the book as a pre-emptive step by the Rajiv Gandhi government is crucial in the history of ban in India. There was hardly any protest by Muslim religious groups, yet the government thought it could hurt religious sentiments. This set an unfortunate precedent in India. After India banned the book, countries like Pakistan and Iran took stronger action against the book as part of their grandstanding.

Similarly, Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada by Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew was banned in 1989 as it talked about the Indian state’s covert operations to dismantle Sikh insurgency. Ram Swarup’s Understanding Islam through Hadis was banned in 1991 for being communally offensive. In 2003, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandito over fears that it could incite communal discord in the State.

The rise of right-wing identitarian political parties in various States too had its bearing on censorship. Parties such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra relied on mob violence to put pressure on State governments to withdraw a book or a film. In many cases, publishers withdrew books that became controversial. For instance, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1995 asked Rupa and Co. to withdraw Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh as it was satirical about Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and Nehru. In 2004, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James Laine was banned by the Congress government in Maharashtra after the Shiv Sena protested against the book.

Successive governments since the 1990s have only succumbed to the politics of “hurt sentiments”. This is largely a result of the highly polarised and communally charged political environment in the country. In recent times, many publishers have surrendered to vandalism against controversial books and withdrawn them from stands.

In 1998, the publishers HarperCollins stopped the print of Hamish Macdonald’s The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, fearing legal action from the Ambani family. Praful Patel, the Union Minister for Civil Aviation in the United Progressive Alliance-I government, forced Bloomsbury to withdraw Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India, which hinted at Patel’s role in the downfall of the state carrier. Javier Morro’s fictional account of Sonia Gandhi too was withdrawn by the publishers after the Congress leadership objected to its release.

More recently, the decision of Penguin Publishers to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and pulp the unsold copies of the book received much flak after it reached an out-of-court settlement with the right-wing organisation Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. Unfortunately, Indian polity has reached a stage where both governments and publishers are seen to be willing to yield to blackmail. M.F. Husain’s forced exile and the government’s unwillingness to protect him shows that artists too are part of the greater damage done to the creative environment in the country.

With the National Democratic Alliance in power at the Centre, the culture of banning has attained greater ground. The Central Board of Film Certification is now populated with BJP supporters. Its members have indicated that films that “do not cater to a family audience” will not be passed, creating apprehensions in the film community.

Thus, the practice of cultural ban continues to expand in India’s political firmament, with the increasing aggression of the Hindutva brigade and a political regime driven by its ideology.

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