04.03.11

Gandhi Book Ban Firestorm

A new Gandhi biography has been banned by a state in India, but that’s just the latest in the country’s troubled history of limiting free speech, says Salil Tripathi. Plus, view a gallery of India’s most infamous censored, banned, and attacked books.

In 1927, the American writer Katherine Mayo wrote a book called Mother India, which attacked Indian society, Hindu practices and customs, and justified British imperial rule in India. Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian barrister who had spent two decades in South Africa, was leading the civil-disobedience movement in India, seeking independence from foreign rule. He described Mayo’s book as “a drain inspector’s report,” but added that Indians should read it. India became independent in 1947; the book remains unavailable officially in India.  

Gallery: Famous Books Banned in India

Now it is a book about Gandhi, which examines his views and evaluates his achievements beyond politics, which is being banned in parts of India. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Joseph Lelyveld has written a thoughtful book about Gandhi, The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, which draws on Gandhi’s own voluminous writings, and shows how contemporary India has turned away from his economic, social, and political views. He also writes about Gandhi’s relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish bodybuilder who became a close friend in South Africa. Lelyveld does not suggest they had a sexual relationship but mentions their close relationship, drawing on their correspondence. Kallenbach gave a generous plot of land to Gandhi, where Gandhi created a farm, naming it after Tolstoy. But British historian Andrew Roberts seized upon those parts in the book, and wrote a sensational review in The Wall Street Journal, where he called him “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent, and a fanatical faddist.” Two right-leaning British newspapers ran stories building on those reviews.  

All hell broke loose in India, as politicians across party lines condemned the book. Nobody had read the book—it is not yet available in India—and was released in the United States only last week. The controversial chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, was the first to ban the book, and the state’s legislature passed a bipartisan resolution approving the ban. Neighboring Maharashtra state is also considering a ban. Initially, the federal law minister M Veerappa Moily suggested the government might consider banning the book nationally. But after Lelyveld explained that he had not called Gandhi bisexual or racist—as reported in the British media—Moily appeared to have second thoughts, which is just as well—three prominent descendants of Gandhi in India have publicly spoken out against the proposed ban.  

In spite of being the world’s most populous democracy with constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, including the right to speak freely, writing or publishing in India is not for the faint-hearted. First there is the law. The Indian constitution does not offer First Amendment-type free-speech guarantees. While all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(A), there are "reasonable restrictions," which permit the state to restrict it "in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”  

Then there are colonial-era laws—in particular, the penal code, established after the Mutiny of 1857—under which there is section 295(A), which makes it a criminal act to “outrage religious feelings” with malicious intent. Another section, 153(A), outlaws "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony."

If the government does not exercise these powers, India has enough busybodies who will do the government’s job, by filing petitions before courts, or take the law in their hands through direct action. Such direct action can range from demonstrations to violence. When Khushwant Singh, a consulting editor at Penguin, read the manuscript of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, he predicted that it could create widespread communal violence and recommended Penguin not publish it in India. Syed Shahabuddin, a member of the parliament, took it upon himself to get the government to act, and the government banned its import, while curiously stating that its action was not meant as a comment on the literary merit of the novel. India was the first country to ban the novel, months before Ayatollah Khomeini imposed the fatwa on Rushdie. Even though India banned the book, there were demonstrations, which turned violent, leading to several deaths in India. Other demonstrations against books in India have also been less than peaceful. At the very least, effigies of the author are often burned, and public property has been damaged in the past.  

There is no method to banning, either. State governments can ban books without having evaluated or read the book, and decisions are made arbitrarily. Some states may ban a book, and others may not. The central government may ignore—or join—such a ban. Such bans are not subject to any procedural consistency; different departments can call for bans. There is no review of the decision, and no limit set, when it could be re-evaluated and the ban overturned, if necessary.  

Courts offer some hope: Many bans get overturned when publishers or distributors sue. But even if bans get overturned, there is no guarantee that the book will be easily available in India, because bookshop owners, distributors, publishers, and indeed authors, fear vigilantes who can turn violent after a verdict goes against them.  

These developments run directly against the liberal aspirations of the constitution. The bans do not even have public approval. As Nilanjana Roy, a leading literary critic in New Delhi, points out, most bans are sought not by readers or citizens, but by political parties. And the fact that courts have overturned most bans, she explains, “indicates that these are of little actual merit. The aim, for politicians, is to manufacture enough outrage over ridiculous issues so that they can then set themselves up as defenders of Indian culture. The effect has been to severely damage free speech and free expression over the last two decades: Our history of bans make us sound like a banana republic, not like a functional democracy.” And that much more distant from Gandhi’s vision of India.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Salil Tripathi is the author of Offense: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009) about Hindu nationalist attacks on free expression, and is based in London. Former correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review in Singapore, he has written for the Independent, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, and is a columnist at Mint and contributing editor at Caravan in India. He has an MBA from the Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College, and is the chair of the Writers-in-Prison Committee at the English PEN.