Don’t tell me what to read

Published: September 2, 2009 - 14:17 Updated: September 2, 2009 - 14:20

Truth can be akin to blasphemy if people are not allowed to decide for themselves what the truth is

Jaswant Singh's book on Jinnah has again brought to the fore the alacrity with which we, Indians, ban a book, censor a film or cast away art and artists. Almost as soon as BJP expelled Singh for writing the book, Jinnah: India-Partition Independence, Narendra Modi seized the opportunity to ban the book in Gujarat. This isn't a first. Political parties cutting across ideological divide have behaved similarly on censorship.

Earlier, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned in 1989 for being blasphemous. India was among the first countries to ban the book. Rajiv Gandhi heading a Congress government at the Centre then accepted the demand to ban the book with an eye on Muslim votes, it is said.

In Maharashtra, various books on Shivaji have been banned, sometimes even for one phrase, with strident demands by outfits like the Shiv Sena. In Bengal, the Left Front government had banned Taslima Nasrin's Dwikhandito, again for hurting religious sentiments. Deepa Mehta's Water, a film on the homeless Hindu widows of Varanasi and Vrindavan who are forsaken there by relatives to die in abject suffering, loneliness and poverty, was violently opposed by VHP/Bajrang Dal goons - as if Hinduism was in danger. Violence and vandalism disrupted the film's shooting. Eventually, the film had to be shot in Sri Lanka. Even a film like the Da Vinci Code was banned in some states though it was widely viewed in the rest of the country.

The Hindutva brigade had demanded MF Hussain's arrest for painting Hindu deities in the nude, which the party said was an "insult to the nation". The artist remains in exile outside the country.

So how free is freedom of speech and expression in the largest democracy? Anything that doesn't go down well with a religious group or a political outfit invites censorship. Even before the people can read a book and decide for themselves whether it is objectionable, a ban is slapped. In effect, it's the government which decides what you can read or see. How free is that?

Doesn't that expose our intolerance to criticism/pluralism of ideas? The personality cult is rooted in Indian culture. That makes criticism of various public figures, who acquire demigod status, a heresy. The other view is muzzled. But, doesn't that muzzle truth, too?

Truth can be akin to blasphemy if people are not allowed to decide for themselves what the truth is - if they are forced to accept the version trotted out by religious or political leaders. Most often, members of a group violently agitating to ban a certain book/film/work of art have not even read it, not even one page of it. They agitate, vandalise, attack fellow citizens and ransack property because they have been told to do so by a leader, religious or political.

The individual is robbed of the freedom to decide his ideology or thought. He is compelled to accept the dogmas dictated by a totalitarian force. This is dangerous. It kills dissent, creativity, the birth of new ideas and thought. Intellectual freedom is put in chains. That is a sure recipe to stymie progress and reforms. If that were to become an accepted norm, then can we ever have a creative renaissance?

Censorship is a worldwide malady. In the US, since 1982, the 'Banned Books Week' is observed in the last week of September every year. The objective is to remind Americans of their freedom of speech and expression. Maybe we could have a similar event in India to raise public awareness about censorship; to make people aware that it is their right to choose what they want to read or view. It is a freedom that they must have.


Truth can be akin to blasphemy if people are not allowed to decide for themselves what the truth is

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This story is from print issue of HardNews