Friday, February 28, 2014

Why we shouldn't blame Penguin for the Doniger debacle

After quite some time book banning is in news again with the withdrawal of Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger by Penguin from Bharat.  It has triggered varied reactions from the media and intelligentsia alike but one question no one seems to be asking: in an internet era can books really be banned? I have not heard whether if you want to buy an ecopy of Hindus online you will be denied the purchase if you are from Bharat. I don’t think you will be.

Nor do I think if you buy a hard copy online and want to have it delivered at your place the online retailers will refuse to deliver you the copy if the delivery venue lies within India. The book is still freely (and also for free; someone circulated it on Twitter) available online. If we go by the court verdict, it doesn’t mention anything about the online fate of the book (at least as much as has been reported by papers)..

Really, in the internet era, that is post Satanic Verses, it has become pointless to slap country-wide or state-wide ban on books. Internet has contracted the potential of a book ban to the confines of, at the maximum, a university syllabus or school curriculum. In other words, outside the controlled and controllable contours of educational institutions or defined programs book bans don’t work anymore.

And frankly, it’s not that ban seekers aren’t aware of futility of book bans.  Despite knowing that ban doesn’t work anymore, if they continue to seek ban on books or films, it’s because it has been seen time and again that ban politics ensures returns for ban seekers with little or no cost borne by them: because each time a brouhaha is kicked up on a book or a film (or any artistic output) our institutes cave in giving the ban-seeking group the halo of being protectors of community pride or identity which was under attack. This pays rich dividends to practitioners of identity-based politics which most political parties in India practice, a fact that explains why all of them have subverted freedom of expression (books, films etc) from time to time.

The Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi caved in and banned Satanic Verses. The Congress government in Maharashtra, few years ago, had Such a Long Journey removed from syllabus. Narendra Modi slapped a ban on a book on Gandhi because it argued that the Mahatma had homosexual leanings for a Jew. A year or so ago, Jayalalitha didn't offer Kamal Hasan any protection to  ensure the release of his movie Viswarupam until the actor producer agreed to truncate his movie to make sure his movie didn't offend some mad mullahs who alleged that the movie had scenes that showed them in poor light. The Left government in Bengal hounded out Taslima Nasreen some years back in the wake of protests by a fundoo Muslim group. And now an obscure Hindutva group manages to bully Penguin. 

I don’t know the legal details of the books that were slapped ban on by our courts, but one – Satanic Verses. There is no ban on production or possession of Satanic Verses. The ban is on public display of the book: you can’t keep the book in stores but can at home. (And I don't think the other court verdicts on books differ very much in essence.) 

If public display is the issue then I am sure those who slap bans don't read the content of a book to determine whether the allegations made against the book indeed stand the test of logic; what is considered is the impact of availability (public visibility) of the book. In other words, it's the risk that its public visibility poses to law and order which is the deciding factor for slapping a ban. 

This, in other words, means a book ban slapped by an institution is an admission of its inability to handle law and order without submitting to the demand of a gunda group. One can  also say putting to test the ability to maintain law and order without submitting to the demand of a gunda group for the sake of a nebulous concept like freedom of expression is not considered worth the effort by our institutes. 

The Wendy Doniger incident is a little different. Here the publisher agreed to withdraw copies of a book directed to do so by a court. And many have said that Penguin, with its deep pockets, could have challenged the verdict in a higher court. But, given the commitment shown by our institutes to protecting artistic outputs when attacked by lampoons, who can say that Penguin wasn't worried that Hindutva elements would harm their business interests in India, especially in an election year, unless they met their demand without showing a whimper of protest? You can't count on authorities anyway!
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