Do we have right to read books?
Right to think, right to write, right to read and right to publish are significant components of freedom of speech and expression which cannot be deprived of without approved constitutional grounds. Prohibition of import and circulation of books, prevention of publication is not listed as remedies in Constitution of India. These are extraordinary powers created by statutes under a broad ground of ‘public order’, unfortunately. The open ended ‘public order’ has almost taken away the freedom of expression.
Most of the books banned by Indian government are on reasons of religious sentiments, defamatory narrations of iconic political leaders like Gandhi and Nehru and historic personalities such as Shivaji. But preventing books from being printed and their confiscation is a rare suppression of express-freedom.
Government of India has banned dozens of books for various reasons. The import of Biography of Nehru written by Michael Edwards is prohibited absolutely for misinterpretation and factual errors.
Some of the books were prohibited for showing India in poor light and misrepresentation. The ground of factual errors was cited as reason for banning Desmond Steward’s Early Islam and Michael Edwards Nehru: A Political Biography in 1975. The government considered that these books were containing grievous factual errors.
During the Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took it very seriously and decided to ban the British historian Michael Edwardes’s book of biography of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. It was criticised as overreaction and that ban favoured the book by fetching undeserved publicity. This book was already criticised by critics across the world. Reviewer Manu S Pillai (in Livemint) mentioned the opinion of one scholar who said that this book was guilty of the “worst sort of reductionism” while another found it full of “questionable statements,” and a third challenged the writer’s claim that it was based on 25 years of research.
Pillai wrote: “Indeed, “emotional” is a word that appears a great deal in this biography. His flirtation with theosophy was emotional; his sense of identification with India’s peasants was emotional; his desire for the unity of the Congress party was emotional; his socialism was emotional; elections were “an emotional release after the drama of independence”; and even his five-year plans were emotional. In sum, Nehru was nothing but overrated emotion.”
He felt it does not deserve ban. He also noted that there were “casual, sweeping claims, such as the suggestion that the first post-1947 election “was essentially a travesty of democracy”, or that the massacre by General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh was because he “panicked.” Pillai said that ‘the book’s greatest flaw in painting Nehru as a witless shuttlecock between an “essentially communal” Gandhi and a Patel-led capitalist lobby is that Nehru’s own urbane, progressive vision is eclipsed deliberately’. He also wrote that while Patel is correctly lauded as the “true founder of the Indian state,” Edwardes forgets that Nehru was the founder of modern Indian democracy – India’s dawn depended on both. He plays down, for instance, Nehru’s 1931 Karachi resolution as a sop to his ideals – in fact, this document on “Fundamental Rights and Economic and Social Changes” asserted principles enshrined now in our Constitution. Nehru was not enough of a politician, Edwardes complains, perhaps oblivious that it was precisely this quality that made him special to millions of people.
Pillai further wrote: “To Edwardes, Nehru was an accident of history – the wrong man at the right place – rather than someone who earned his stripes. The author arrived at this conclusion and produced over 300 pages detailing it, without access to even one of Nehru’s vast collection of private and official papers. Nehru himself might merely have laughed at the provocation. After all, in 1937, he wrote an anonymous article criticizing himself to encourage his people to hold their leaders accountable.”
Pillai opposed banning of the book saying: “Questions, he knew, must be asked of all tall leaders, but perhaps out of personal affection, or on account of a thin skin, Nehru’s daughter does not seem to have agreed with this principle. So, she banned what was a poorly argued book, denying it its natural demise, and granting it a place of honour among those who resented Nehru then and fear his memory even today”.
In a democracy various kind of political thoughts have to be heard and facilitated to be expressed. Marxism is a political thought and naxalism is the action part of it, with which the ruling governments do have problem of ‘security.’ Governments are constitutionally correct when they fight violence. But is it right to prohibit a political thought? Promoting and provoking violence could be a valid ground for action but how can a thought process could be allowed when liberty of thought is guaranteed by the Preamble and democratic rights in Part III of the Constitution of India?
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned for alleged insulting of the Prophet. Fatwa became popular with this ‘ban’ as a threat to freedom to read a book. Not only in India, this book was prohibited in a bunch of other countries as Muslim community felt it was ridiculing their legend Prophet Muhammad. Another book “Understanding ISLAM through HADIS, Religious Faith or fanaticism?” by Ram Swarup, faced wrath of Muslims. Book was banned and publisher was arrested.
Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus saw a major backlash in India. It was acclaimed as well researched book, but the Hindus felt that Indian Gods were insulted by the author. Another book that was opposed vehemently by the Hindus was Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana. It was banned in 1956 for ridiculing Indian classic mythological great Ramayana.
Jaswant Singh was expelled from BJP for writing a book on Jinnah, India, Partition – Independence, for not portraying Jinnah as a national breaker. The book criticised Patel and Nehru. This book was banned by BJP Government. Morarji Desai, former Prime Minister of India was accused by Seymour Hersh as CIA agent. Hersh alleged that Morarji supplied secrets of India to CIA. Morarji filed a case of defamation and got the book banned in India.
‘An Area of Darkness’ by V S Naipaul was banned for portraying India in negative manner. Alexander Campbell’s ‘The Heart of India’ was also banned for being ‘repulsive.’ Another book that was banned was ‘the Polyester Prince: The rise of Dhirubhai Ambani’ by Hamish McDonald for tarnishing Ambani’s family image. Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja is another book threatened by ‘fatwa’ and ban. These are some of the significant books that were prohibited.
Unconstitutional seizure of books before printing
Maoist leader Akkiraju Haragopal aka Ramakrishna aka RK was a friend and special guest of Andhra Pradesh government, when the then Chief Minister of AP Y S Rajasekhara Reddy invited Naxalite leaders for negotiations to end the armed struggle. RK, who died recently in Chhattisgarh, was residing in a government guest house and hundreds of people queued up before his room with representations about their problems. His wife wanted to publish a book on his life with articles written in various newspapers and other material. The police seized around 1,000 copies of Saayudha Shaanti Swapna (Dream of Peace of Armed struggle) and other material. Such seizure of books before publication is a worst restriction than pre-censorship, which is not permitted under fundamental rights of our Constitution. There are provisions of restrictions on ‘expression’ rights after publication under Article 19(2). Time and again Supreme Court said that state cannot impose prior restrictions before ‘expression.’
The state or police could have powers to impose restrictions on the ground of security only after publication of books, but not before. Unless there is an immediate threat to security, there cannot be restriction on freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
The police raid or seizure cannot be justified simply because book was about life and actions of RK. They can do so only when that content of that book could cause riot or violence or communal strife.
(The author is Dean & Professor, School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad, and former Central Information Commissioner) (The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)
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