Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Banning books doesn't work

Banning books doesn't work
A book, an essay and a film have run into trouble in recent days. The Bundelas, to use a cliché, are up in arms against London-based author Jaishree Misra and want the Union Government to impose a ban on her novel, Rani, a fictional account of the life and times of Rani Lakshmibai published by Penguin. The book has already been banned in Uttar Pradesh where politicians not known for either rectitude or probity have feigned outrage over Jaishree Misra's audacious suggestion that Rani Lakshmibai, immortalised in folklore as the chaste and brave Jhansi ki Rani, had an affair with Robert Ellis, the British political agent. Meanwhile, the Bundelas are incensed that the author should have claimed Raja Gangadhar Rao was impotent. MM Kaye was wise not to identify the dissolute raja in her bestseller (later made into a popular television serial) The Far Pavilions, as was JR Ackerley, who displayed exemplary inventiveness while fudging the identity of the degenerate ruler in his Hindoo Holiday - An Indian Journal.
The demand to ban Rani, however, has been largely peaceful, unlike the agitation against the inclusion of 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation', an essay by AK Ramanujam, in the recommended reading material for students of history in Delhi University. It appears that a committee of teachers compiled the reading material two years ago; it is only now that Ramanujam's essay has raised the hackles of the ABVP whose members ransacked the university's Arts Faculty on February 25. The ABVP insists Ramanujam, an acclaimed scholar of the Ramayan tradition, has 'defamed' Ram. "It goes against everything we have been taught as children. What is the point of applying logic to religion? It is a matter of faith," says Manil Mayank Mishra, an activist of the ABVP. In their belligerent mood, Mishra and his fellow activists are missing out on two points. First, Ramanujam has referred to the various Ramayan traditions that exist; rubbishing him and trashing his essay would mean repudiating the existence of these traditions. Second, it is not a theological text that lays down the line for the faithful; it is an academic exploration that has nothing to do with either religion or logic.
Often our response to that which we perceive to be offensive is no more than knee-jerk reaction. A case in point is the hostility with which the Rajput Sabha has greeted Ashutosh Gowarikar's film, Jodhaa Akbar. The film is clearly an attempt to cash in on an alleged episode of history, which by all accounts and available records of the period, never really happened. It is a frivolous film that seeks to dazzle viewers rather than recreate Akbar's foray into Rajputana; to do that, it would require more than a pea-brained Bollywood director. Does that mean Ashutosh Gowarikar's jaundiced version of history should go unchallenged? Not really. After all, it is in conflict with what history texts tell us and what children learn in school, and later in colleges and universities. It does serve to perpetuate the myth about Akbar's impeccable secular credentials, but Bollywood need not worry itself silly about such political concerns. Sensing trouble, the film's distributors have steered clear of Rajasthan, thus sparing Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje the trouble of calming riotous mobs. What they had not anticipated was Rajputs in Madhya Pradesh taking to the streets, forcing the State Government to impose what was clearly an ill-advised ban that has since been set aside by the High Court. So, how do we deal with truly disgraceful films like Jodhaa Akbar? Not by banning them or by threatening violence. If our pride as a nation -- the history of Rajputana is integral to the history of India -- is hurt by such wilful distortion of history by a callous film-maker -- or a writer, for that matter -- then we should just boycott it. No multiplex will screen a film, nor will a bookshop stock a book, if there are no profits to be reaped.
In this context, it is amusing to note how some champions of 'freedom of expression', 'tolerance' and 'liberalism' have sought to put down the anger generated by Ashutosh Gowarikar's disregard for facts as "hooliganism" and "fascism". Such strong words were not heard when Rajiv Gandhi ordered the ban on Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses or when the Congress encouraged its State Governments to ban the screening of Ron Howard's film, The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown's eponymous book, alleging it hurt the sentiments of Christians. Before that, another Congress Government at the Centre had banned Martin Scorsese's cinematic version of The Last Temptation of Christ, written by celebrated Greek author Nicos Kazantzakis, citing similar reasons. In sharp contrast, the Censor Board had no compunctions about giving a 'U' certificate to Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ whose gory scenes cannot but scar young minds and whose portrayal of Biblical history is not entirely free of anti-Semitism. Nobody insisted that the film's distributors should insert a parental advisory or a disclaimer about its historical accuracy.
Yet, a Government that bans, to public acclaim, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom because of its latent racism, also proscribes Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, unmindful of the lurid versions of Vatsayana's treatise -- the coffee table editions are clearly meant to shock and awe -- that are on sale in bookshops, at kiosks and on pavements. The urge to save the masses from the corrupting influence of 'obscenity' does not, however, extend to prohibiting the sale of Playboy and Penthouse DVDs that are now openly displayed in music and movie stores under the category of 'Health & Physical Fitness'. Curiously though, both Playboy and Penthouse are listed as contraband items in the little black book that Customs officials carry. Which only goes to show how meaningless it is to ban a book or a film, especially in this day and age when anything and everything is only a click of the mouse away. It was as meaningless before the information superhighway made a mockery of official restrictions. Let's not forget that despite Chief Justice M Hidayatullah ruling in favour of the ban on DH Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, in 1964, the book continued -- and continues -- to be available.
So, the next time we ask for a ban on a book, an essay or a film to assuage our hurt feelings, let us also bear in mind that it shall serve no purpose other than allowing desecrators of another shade to seize the moral high ground. We are seeing this happen in Delhi University where Left-wing activists, who are no paragons of 'tolerance', are out denouncing the ABVP as a "communal fascist force".

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