Here we go again. Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das and his Bharatiya Janata Party government have now joined a long list of rulers who have thrown democratic principles into the gutter and put a ban on a book they don’t like. To be more accurate, it’s not even a book they don’t like; it’s a book to which they have paid no attention until somebody — in this case the State Opposition — decided to turn it into a political football. To be even more precise, Das has peremptorily decided to ban a book of short stories written in English that was published two years ago. He says he has done this so that the mostly illiterate, mostly non-readers of English who are the people of Jharkhand can be ‘protected’ from this book. Furthermore, while some outraged people have seen fit to burn an effigy of the writer, Das has asked the relevant authorities to launch a legal case against the man for insulting the Adivasis and for showing Adivasi women in a bad light.
The real harvest of the ban
This argument for banning and prosecution made by the Jharkhand Chief Minister as well as Hemant Soren, the Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly, is a lie. This is because when Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s book was published — to considerable acclaim, as it happens — it caused no upheaval among the Adivasis of the State. It’s a lie because a book cannot ‘insult’ a religion, a god, a prophet, a people, an ethnic group, a caste, or a country; a book is a book, and you can choose to read it or not; a book doesn’t open by itself, it stays shut until someone chooses to pick it up and read it; a book does not collar you in the street or on a village path; a book does not spit in your face, ‘outrage your modesty’ or assault you.
With this lie, Das and Soren join a group of illustrious politician-liars. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress government banned a book because they wanted to pander to the Muslim vote bank. A few years later, the CPI(M) government in West Bengal banned another book for the same reason. Across the last several years, we have seen all sorts of evil clowns in various positions of power in India trying or succeeding in getting books and films banned. One of the things that is common in all these banning projects is that the book or film itself is never the real issue; the real harvest of the ban, each time, is the gain in political power it brings to the person, group, or party shouting for the ban.
Setting dangerous precedents
There is a rule of thumb when analysing any riot or terrorist attack: look beyond the obvious and try to see who ultimately benefits from that particular riot or atrocity. Once you identify the profit-making party, you will be closer to identifying who actually engineered or choreographed the deadly event.
A similar rule can be applied to the business of banning books, plays, and films. For instance, were millions of Indian Muslims really going to be affected by some novelist writing in English and making oblique references to a fictional figure who may resemble the Prophet Mohammed? Of course not. The real danger lay in the fact that some unscrupulous opportunistic leader or politician could create unrest among Indian Muslims by using the book for his own ends. So, rather than having the political courage to come down on whoever might cause the trouble, it was far simpler to ban The Satanic Verses and set off a domino chain of banning precedents. Likewise, was Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus , with all its flaws and inaccuracies, going to cause great pain to millions of Hindus? Obviously not. The only counter needed against the book were a few reviews pointing out the mistakes. After which the book could have been left to be read by the few hundred people who might actually have picked it up. But no, if you succeed in bullying a big publisher into withdrawing a book, you can set a precedent. If today the malevolent champion of the Hindutvaliban,Dinanath Batra, manages to snuff out Doniger’s book, tomorrow he can hope to snuff out Tagore. And if he manages to remove Tagore, then deleting Gandhi and Nehru from the consciousness of our schoolchildren can easily be the next target.
A book is a series of words on a page or a screen, a string of words that forms ideas and images, and it’s up to each individual reader what he or she does with those ideas and images. If some are hurt by reading a book, then, well, they are hurt; they can write another text to counter the hurtful book. If someone wants to generate actual violence on the basis of a book or a film, it’s a crime and there is no justification for it. As a society claiming to have democratic ideals, we have to prosecute the perpetrators of violence and not ban the book or film used as an excuse for that violence. If we as a nation start to applaud and bolster people who burn effigies of writers and artists, we are done for. If you don’t want to see a country bereft of thinkers, a dissent-muktBharat, please go out today and buy a copy of The Adivasi Will Not Dance . That will show those in power that we as a society will not dance to their malicious drumbeat.