Thin-skinned country3 min read . Updated: 24 Jan 2012, 08:08 PM IST
Book banning isn’t new in India. Among the first books to be banned in India was Veer Savarkar’s account of the First War of Indian Independence in 1857. Savarkar had written the book in Marathi in 1907 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war. The British, fearing Savarkar’s version, banned the book. Through the work of fellow patriots and supporters, Savarkar managed to get the book translated and published in 1910; he was eventually awarded two life sentences in Kala Pani, the Cellular Jail located in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. For nearly the next 40 years, the British tried to burn every copy they could find. It’s among my most prized possessions that I have a copy that the British did not burn. One of the first items of business for free India was to lift the ban on the book.
However, since then, India has banned more than a dozen books for a variety of reasons. The British feared the ideas of an Indian in banning a book. They feared that their one-sided history of our war for independence would come to light and that we would realize the barbaric nature of their colonial rule. They feared the power of an idea: a free independent India. We, however, do not ban books today because we fear the power of an idea. We ban books or curtail free speech because we are offended.
The political will to challenge any individual or small group that takes offence is not there. Worse, our politicians themselves are leading lights of taking offence. And it’s not exactly clear what anyone is fearful of. The groups that take offence are mostly small and have no teeth. And India is not alone in being fearful of the acts of a few individuals.
In the US, a reality TV show chronicling the lives of ordinary Muslim-Americans lost prominent advertisers because a self-proclaimed group, the Florida Family Association, was offended that the show did not show the threat of jihad. The New York Times dove deeper into the story and found that the Florida Family Association was the work of one man, one individual who was on a crusade to show the threat of a non-existent jihad by US Muslims.
In the age of social media, a crusading individual or organization can achieve the power of an army. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, Joseph Lelyveld spoke about how his book on Gandhi achieved international fame and Indian infamy because a lone London paper picked on an aspect of his book and exaggerated what he wrote to great effect. If that paper hadn’t written that story, it’s not clear how many people would have read another biography of Gandhi, no matter how good (Lelyveld’s book is banned in Gujarat).
All of this leads to Salman Rushdie, the international poster boy of book banning. He couldn’t come here because of a perceived security threat. Again, the wording of the threat struck me: it wasn’t assassins that were out to get Rushdie, but paid assassins. That threat actually made more sense to me. It’s highly unlikely that an ordinary Indian is going to get up in the morning and say, “You know what, I want to assassinate Rushdie." It is slightly more likely that some idiot group had hired three poor youths to do the same. The 26/11 attack stands as a reminder that jihadist groups do prey on the poverty of young men. Still, at this point, it’s not clear that even that happened.
But I wouldn’t blame our police. The police did an admirable job in controlling massive crowds at Jaipur. (And the civic authorities didn’t make things easier by scheduling the Jaipur marathon on the same week.) Instead, our politicians need to step up. Lead us, don’t be thin-skinned. Revel in a political cartoon. If someone writes a book or makes a movie about you, let them. Enjoy the joke or ignore the movie or book. Lead by example. As fellow columnist Sidin Vadukut wrote, “Anybody who laughs at themselves in this country should be given Bharat Ratna and cherished as a national treasure." Our politicians have become so thin-skinned that the nation is following suit.
Rabindranath Tagore famously wrote:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free...
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Sadly, we are still asleep.
Prashant Agrawal, a principal at a management consultancy, writes on public policy issues in India and internationally.
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