Freedom to read under fire

Ranjona BanerjiIndia’s track record as an illiberal democracy which does not respect freedom of expression stands firm with Penguin’s decision to withdraw and “pulp” all unsold copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus.

The possible difference to India’s usual pusillanimity in such matters is that this time it was a publisher and not the Government of India which decided not to upset religious “sentiments”.

We have an excellent track record in such matters. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, where we were among the first countries to ban it in case Muslim sentiments were upset. Many apparently were and especially those who hadn’t read it.

The correct response to Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, if you disliked it so much, would have been to slam it shut and sell it to the recyclewallah
The correct response to Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, if you disliked it so much, would have been to slam it shut and sell it to the recyclewallah

Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana was banned because his satire was too sharp to swallow for some. Dr BR Ambedkar’s commentaries on the Ramayana and Hinduism are hard to find - stuck in a sort of unofficial ban because of Hindu sentiments which are as easily upset as Muslim sentiments.

Artist MF Husain sent himself to exile because Hindu feelings were hurt by his artistic depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses - after he could not take his artworks being vandalised any more.

Bangladeshi author in exile Taslima Nasreen was not just physically attacked for her criticism of Islam but also found that Bengal was not quite as hospitable as it had once been when she commented on its resident worthies.

Historian James Laine’s book on the 17th century warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji was banned after members of the Nationalist Congress Party ransacked the reputed Bhandarkar Institute in Pune because Laine had done some research there.

The correct response would have been to ban those members of the NCP but we know that when it comes to maintaining the peace, we in India look first to the most kneejerk illogical solution. Like the Mumbai police commissioner who wanted to ban cell phones when it was discovered that they were being used by convicts in jails.

The list indeed is endless and recounting it becomes tedious. It should be enough to say that we do not care about freedom of speech or expression and do not even pretend to care. If Penguin had not given in to the Shiksha Bachao Andolan in the Doniger case, some government or the other would have.

Many have argued about the inconsistencies and mistakes in Doniger’s book on Hinduism as they did about the brazen mocking of Islam and its prophet in Rushdie’s novel. But those who do this miss the point, which is: so what? A book or a painting or a film or a cartoon may be offensive, badly written and rubbishy. The critic can comment and the reader can decide. In extreme cases there are vulgarity, obscenity and hate laws. And these need to be used only in extreme cases.

Film-makers in India for instance often have to show their films to potential “upsettees” which might range from politicians to the police or to barbers, for instance. It is bad enough that they have to submit their films to a Censor Board.

The fact that the world’s largest democracy (is that what we are, I sometimes forget which ridiculous hyperbolic terms we attach to ourselves) has a “Censor Board” is bad enough. Add to that the fact that we accept it so easily.

And then to have all these various hurt sentiments popping up is even worse. It is another matter that so many Hindi films at least lack proper stories, scripts, directors and actors. But we absolutely love those don’t we, as long as they have enough inane, vulgar songs?

The correct response to Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, if you disliked it so much, would have been to slam it shut and sell it to the recyclewallah. Or to chuck it across the room, if you were not a follower of the Goddess Saraswati.

Or, just don’t read it. And as for the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, there’s plenty wrong with education in India which you can work on. Including the fact that so many Indians still cannot read but perhaps that doesn’t bother you quite so much. Because as long as they can’t read anything, they can’t read Doniger either?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

  • Guest26-Feb-2014

    Our holy cows, there are so many of them, are good for neither milk nor meat.

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