Famous Books Banned in India

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.

The Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld

The Pulitzer Prize-winning former executive editor of The New York Times has written a biography, The Great Soul that draws on Gandhi’s life in South Africa and India. Reacting to sensational reviews in The Wall Street Journal and the British media, which claimed that the book exposes Gandhi’s sexual life and racist views, Indian politicians called for a ban on the book. Gandhi’s home state, Gujarat, has already banned it; one more state is considering a ban. After initially suggesting the central government might impose a nationwide ban, the law minister has backtracked, citing Lelyveld’s clarifications.

Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert

In 1962, the Indian government banned the novel, Nine Hours to Rama by the historian Wolpert, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is a fictional account of the last day of Gandhi’s life, and focuses on the Hindu nationalist conspirators who plotted and carried out Gandhi’s assassination at a prayer meeting in 1948. It got banned because it exposed the poor security provided to Gandhi, and hinted at possible incompetence and collusion.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

India has the dubious honor of being the first country in the world to ban the Indian-born novelist’s controversial The Satanic Verses. Following protests from influential Muslim leaders, India banned the novel in late 1988 before it was released in India, and on February 14, 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa on Rushdie for denigrating Islam. Rushdie had to live in hiding for nearly a decade. (Iran has since said its government won’t carry out the fatwa’s death-sentence directive; the book remains banned in India.)

The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh

In his 1984 account of the Nixon White House, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hersh alleged that India’s former prime minister, Morarji Desai, was an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency. Desai called the allegation “sheer madness” and sued for libel in the United States, where he lost the case. The Indian government temporarily banned the book following the allegations against Desai.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

Such a Long Journey, published in 1991, set in an atmosphere of political intrigue and corruption in India of the 1970s, was nominated for the Booker Prize in Britain, and won the Governor-General’s Prize in Canada. Last year, Aditya Thackeray, the grandson of Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena Party in Mumbai, protested against the novel to the vice chancellor of the University of Mumbai, for prescribing the novel on the English syllabus, because it contained language that was derogatory to his party and Marathi-speaking people. Extraordinarily, the university acquiesced promptly and withdrew the book from the syllabus. However, it is not banned and is available at bookshops.

Riddles of Hinduism by Bhimrao Ambedkar

Ambedkar, regarded as the architect of the Indian constitution who converted to Buddhism as protest against discriminatory practices of Hinduism, raised challenging and probing questions about the inequities and caste hierarchy of Hinduism in this volume. In the 1980s, Hindu nationalists protested against some sections because they argued Ambedkar’s comments inflamed Hindu sentiments. Ambedkar’s followers from the underprivileged Dalit community led counter-demonstrations. The state decided initially to suspend the publication of Ambedkar’s collected works, but later relented, with a caveat saying that the government did not agree with all of Ambedkar’s views.

The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen 

Menen was an Irish-Indian satirist who reinterpreted the Hindu epic Ramayana. An irreverent iconoclast, Menen deconstructed the epic in a playful way that angered many Hindu leaders—the book had yet to reach many readers. In 1956, the Indian government banned it on the grounds that it could offend religious sensitivities.

Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James Laine

Shivaji is a revered medieval warrior-king who ruled large parts of what is now Maharashtra state in western India. Laine teaches religious studies at Macalester College in the U.S., and Oxford University Press published this academic book in 2003. It looked at Shivaji dispassionately and suggested that his parents might have been estranged for some time. A militant mob then attacked the research institute where Laine had carried out some of his research, and Maharashtra banned the book because it “contained material promoting social enmity.” The high court overruled the ban in 2007. The state challenged it before India's supreme court, which upheld the high court decision. Oxford withdrew the book from distribution, and despite the court order, it is not easily available in India.

Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings by Paul Courtright

In 1985, the Emory University professor Courtright published Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings that explored the Oedipal overtones of the story of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god. An Indian publisher specializing in Indology distributed it in India in 2001. Three years later, Hindus in the U.S. led a campaign against the book for misrepresenting and disrespecting Hinduism, leading to the book disappearing from Indian bookstores. Courtright received death threats on email lists.

Jinnah: India Partition Independence by Jaswant Singh

Official accounts of Indian history portray Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah as the villain whose obstinacy led to India’s Partition at the time of independence in 1947. In 2009, Jaswant Singh, former foreign minister in the government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (now the leading opposition party) wrote a massive account of Jinnah’s politics with remarkable objectivity. While what he said wasn’t necessarily new, it gained notoriety because it was critical of Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, and showed Jinnah as more reasonable than the way he is often portrayed in India. That went against the conventional wisdom in India, and the BJP, which otherwise opposes the Congress party, expelled Singh from the party. BJP-ruled Gujarat banned the book. A court order later revoked the ban, and Singh has now rejoined the party.

Mother India by Katherine Mayo

In 1927, American writer Mayo published her account of travels through India, in which she made sweeping comments about Indian sexuality and society, but also pointed out many social ills. Mohandas Gandhi criticized the book as “a drain inspector’s report,” but also added that Indians could read her book with profit. Its import remains prohibited in India, although the book is available on the Internet.

Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Edwardes

In this 1973 biography, Edwardes raised questions about the effectiveness of Nehru’s political leadership, even highlighting differences of opinion and disputes within Congress leadership before independence. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was Nehru’s daughter, declared an internal emergency and jailed her opponents after a court verdict ruled against her. During that period, her government banned the book. It is now available in India.

The Lotus and the Robot by Arthur Koestler

Published in 1960, Koestler’s account of his visits to India and Japan were unpopular in India for his generalizations. It painted a bleak future for Indian democracy, as he assumed that Indian preference for a father figure would prevent its people from making democratic choices. The government banned it, and reportedly the book is available in some bookstores in India, although the ban remains in effect. 

Rangila Rasool

Originally published by a Hindu publisher in Urdu in 1927 and later translated into Hindi and English, it immediately became controversial on grounds of blasphemy for criticizing Islam. Its publication led to tension between Hindus and Muslims. Its publisher was tried and acquitted, but was later stabbed to death. The book remains banned in India and Pakistan.

Polyester Prince by Hamish McDonald

Dhirubhai Ambani set up what became one of India’s biggest business groups, Reliance. His rise was controversial, with allegations that rules were bent so that he could do what he wanted—many of those rules were inspired by the socialist mind-set, which prevailed in India till the economic liberalization of 1991. In 1998, Australian journalist McDonald wrote this account of Ambani’s rise, which remained unavailable in India, partly because of concerns that Ambani would sue if the book got released. McDonald has since written an updated version, called Ambani and Sons, which is widely available in India.

Dwikhondito (Split in Two, Bengali) by Taslima Nasreen

In 2003, the communist-controlled West Bengal government banned Nasreen’s book because of fears that it would cause religious tensions. Nasreen is a Bangladeshi author who then lived in exile in India because several of her books were banned there and she faced threats to her life in Bangladesh. While the state government banned the book, a court order later revoked it. Dwikhondito is part of her multi-volume autobiography.

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The original “obscene” novel was about an aristocratic woman’s illicit relationship with her gardener and was controversial because of its depiction of sex as much as for its politics. First published in 1928 in Italy, it could not be printed in Britain till 1960. It was banned in India in 1964, even after Britain revoked the ban. Dismissing the petition against the ban unanimously, the supreme court held: “The law seeks to protect not those who protect themselves, but those whose prurient minds take delight and sexual pleasures from erotic writings.” Like with other books, the ban is not actively implemented, and the book is available in some Indian bookstores.