Two weeks ago the United States had a Banned Books Week.Â Ketan TannaÂ looks back at India’s long and glorious tradition of banning anything perceived to hurt religious, patriotic and other sentiments
DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in Italy in 1928 and in Paris the following year. However, it was banned in the UK until 1960. Lady Chatterley’s erotic affair with the family gamekeeper would have been tame fare today, but it set off a storm of outrage then. In 1960, the book’s publisher, Penguin, sent 12 copies to the UK Director of Public Prosecutions challenging him to prosecute, which he did. The six-day trial at the Old Bailey gripped the nation. The defence produced 35 witnesses, including Dame Rebecca West and E M Forster. The prosecution was unable to make a substantial case, and the ban was lifted. Within a year, two million copies were sold, outselling even the Bible. Fortyfive years later, the book continues to be banned in India although it is freely available.
The Indian government has been quick to ban books that it feels will hurt religious sentiment, threaten national security, or upset the holy cows in the political pantheon. The censors are particularly thinskinned when it comes to literature on government bungling. The British in India had no compunctions about banning what they called ‘seditious’ literature-Premchand was a target-and the government of independent India has followed suit. Books have been banned for saying unflattering things about Pandit Nehru and Shivaji (James Laine’s Hindu King in Islamic India), or offering an alternative perspective on Gandhi’s assassination (Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours To Rama). “Hurting religious sentiments” though is the clear winner. Dom Moraes’ Bombay was banned because it had a picture of the Tower of Silence.
The heat and dust generated while a book is banned is in stark contrast to the aftermath. In most cases, the Centre, and even the state governments, couldn’t be bothered about whether the ban is implemented.
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned by the Centre, the Bengal government banned Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandito. Once the Centre takes a decision, it is for the state governments to implement, says J P S Verma, deputy home secretary, internal security, ministry of home affairs.
Verma says the Union home ministry does not enforce the ban, nor does it maintain a list of banned books. The list is with the customs department. Customs officers at various airports and ports are the guardians of our morality as they are the ones who can impound a banned book that dares to land on pure Indian soil.
If the book has been published in India itself, it’s a different matter altogether. Once the politicians have finished with burning the book (The Moor’s Last Sigh), few care about whether the ban is implemented. “I started the Strand Book store on November 20, 1949. So far, no government official or policeman has ever contacted me to say that so and so book has been banned and that I should not be stocking a particular book. For that matter, nobody has ever searched my shop for a banned book,” says T N Shanbhag, owner of the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai.
Invariably, controversy and bans help sales. In September 2005, the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban on Dwikhandito, which promptly sold out within a couple of days. “Whenever anything is banned, more people take to it. The government has never been serious about banning. The intention behind any ban is always political,” says acclaimed playwright Vijay Tendulkar.
There have also been books that have not been officially banned but have nevertheless disappeared from public reach due to machinations of political parties or motivated business groups.
The good news is that in the last few years, the Centre and the state governments have been less zealous in playing watchdog. The sudden season of tolerance (indifference?) is a welcome change given the long and winding list of banned books in India.