Freedom of speech in a country like India is in a constant peril. It gives writers, artists and thinkers the right to express themselves the way they want and it gives the dissenters the right to protest against voices they deem to be controversial, unethical or derogatory. But these protests can sometimes take an ugly turn. Books get taken off the shelves. The true voice of the writers gets silenced. In the worst cases, the writer’s life and the lives of those close to him face a risk. From Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) which was banned because it hurt Muslim sentiments, to Perumal Murugan’s book Madhorubhagan (2010) which was withdrawn by publishers on the request of the writer himself after he attracted the ire of the local Hindu groups, literary expression has been facing challenges that can be tough to quell.
I reached out to Dr. Mini Chandran, Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Kanpur, to understand the nature of literary censorship in India.
In a democratic country like India that promotes free speech, there are no overt rules necessarily that limit literary expression. And yet, despite liberalism, India tells writers what they can and cannot say. How does artistic freedom thrive in this environment?
It is not quite correct to say that India tells writers what to say and what not to say. There has been no state censorship in India since 1947; all cases of banning or other forms of suppression have been the state’s response to ‘popular’ demand. In other words, the citizens of India have requested the nation-state to protect public morality or the sovereignty of the state by proscribing artists/art. This discursive censorship is far worse than blatant censorship laws precisely because it tends to be internalised by artists who then become over-cautious in their work. They think twice before putting pen to paper, as they are reluctant to offend. It is not just personal reprisal that they fear (which is a valid fear, considering the way in which Safdar Hashmi, Kalburgi or Pansare were silenced) but the fear of sparking large-scale unrest (think of the riots post Satanic Verses). This self-censorship is counter-productive in art because only unfettered minds can produce brilliant and stimulating work.
If a writer (and for that matter any artist) is just a medium for translating reality using his/her voice, why are we as a society not more tolerant of that expression? Why are we not using them to discover new ideas and learn, and instead choosing to be incensed and offended?
I think this is due to a misconception regarding the role that a novel or painting plays in society. Art does not seek to teach, impart information, or propagate a message that has an immediate effect on society; rather, it contains knowledge that works at a far deeper level. It prompts you to think and ruminate, not provoke into immediate action. When Perumal Murugan wrote about a particular community his intention was not to mock them or cure them of a social evil. There are social reformers for this task. He wanted people to rethink social customs and mores, and his was an indirect way of doing it. People get offended when they tend to read literature like a social science article, without realising that the truth of literature is not the truth of everyday life. Literature should be understood and evaluated according to a different set of criteria, not on the basis of the ‘messages’ it conveys or fails to convey.
How does one become the judge of whether or not a book deserves to sit in bookstores, libraries and people’s homes?
The simple answer to this is that one cannot become a judge of literature. This is a completely subjective opinion. A librarian can perhaps decide on the books s/he can have in their library, and maybe so does a bookstore owner, but they cannot decide what people choose to read.
Are books that revolve around the themes related to religion, politics or sexuality more likely to be reacted against? Is it because they might make the reader go against conventional wisdom?
Sexuality and politics seem to have taken a backseat with respect to censorship. Religion is the most provocative matter today, not just in India but all over the world. There have been very few cases of public outcry against a book for immorality or treason. It is always difficult to accept that the faith, or any belief you hold on to, can be questioned. Religion, morality and patriotism are integral elements of a human being’s personality and existence. Any change or call for change in that will meet with stiff resistance and hostility; although it is a fact that it is only questions like these that have led to human progress.
Are the ones seeking or promoting censorship proving any literary or artistic points or is censorship rooted in personal/communal/political biases?
Any attempt to stifle another person’s opinion is rooted in intolerance of a dissident viewpoint. To that extent, I would agree that censorship stems from biases.
What is the true cost for a writer when his/her work draws censorship?Do we merely ban the book or silence the writer’s artistic abilities altogether? And how does censorship affect the publishers?
There are multiple ways in which censorship can affect writers. In dictatorships where there are stringent laws against censorship, it can in a very perverse way, stimulate creativity. Writers have been known to invent very innovative ways in which to circumvent restrictions and get their work published. That is why we find literature being written even in the harshest of dictatorships, like the former Soviet Union or East Germany.
Strangely, censorship is more harmful to creativity in so-called democratic nation-states, where writers are subjected to pressure exerted by the mob. This can range from calls for beheading (like those on Rushdie or Taslima Nasrin), or hounding a writer to flee from his home or country (remember the experience of M. F. Husain or Perumal Murugan). What can also be very disturbing for the writer are riots which break out in the name of blasphemy and sedition; these endanger lives of innocent people. All this can be very deadening to the spirit of creativity in a writer, because it makes them avoid anything that might provoke controversy, and takes away from the spontaneity of writing, making it artificial and forced. These restrictions come from within the writer because of the pressure from outside them and they fear for the safety of others rather than themselves. This includes their publishers too. For instance, there have been cases where the publisher or even the translator has been attacked, like those of The Satanic Verses. Most writers will be very reluctant to put lives of other people at risk.
The publishers too will begin to take extreme precaution when it comes to publishing manuscripts. The predicament of Penguin in the case of Wendy Doniger or Oxford University Press in the case of A. K. Ramanujan are cases in point.
Doesn’t censorship attract greater attention, paving ways for the banned book to spring up on the Internet for everyone’s consumption?
Suppression always encourages attention, and it is a common human tendency to be attracted to what is forbidden. So in this sense, all attempts at suppression are counter-productive. But it is not correct to assume that all banned books are easily available on the Internet; it is only when writers themselves take the initiative that these can be made available freely. So Taslima Nasrin uploaded her banned book while Perumal Murugan did not do this.
Literary censorship is not talked or heard about as much as censorship of media or movies. Is this part of the problem, why intolerance thrives and why banned writers don’t get more support?
It is true that suppression of books does not get the sort of attention that movies or other performances get. But it is also true that the number of books that face such controversy is less when compared to movies. The limited reach of books, especially literary works, when compared to more popular art forms like the cinema or theatre, could very well be a safety mechanism when it comes to censorship. The less attention it attracts, the safer it is!
Is there a way to grow more tolerant of written ideas without seeking censorship? Can there be other forms of control or restrictions and should there be?
There is no easy way here – people will be offended and offence might get translated into action. This is where the act of reading has to become more responsible and mature. The only way to be tolerant of dissident and even hateful ideas is to read more, and get acclimatised to difference.
Dr. (Prof.) Mini Chadran is a Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Kanpur. She is an expert on literary censorship in the twentieth century (which was the topic of her PhD dissertation), is the author of the book ‘The Writer, the Reader and the State: Literary Censorship in India’ and is a lover of literature in all languages.