April 7th, 2012
Email this page

Everybody loves a good ban


Article/ NP Ashley

Rushdie is the most compelling, intriguing yet obvious presence of the last some months in the media. After the Jaipur Literary Festival, Imran Khan’s staying out of the India Today conclave placed the spot light yet again on Rushdie. Of all people, Imran Khan making Rushdie look like some spectral manifestation of evil, gives the whole scene a promptly magical realist touch, which Rushdie doesn’t need to bother to pen down. He might just live in it!

To start with, I don’t know if all are to be so bothered about the artistic rights of Rushdie the writer, but I think all Indians should be bothered about the human rights of Rushdie, the person. Only because he has written a book, Satanic Verses, asking for a ban on the person is ridiculous. If it is the potential repeatability that is given as a reason for asking him not to come of the literary festival or for Imran Khan to ask himself not to attend some conclave, then anyone is capable of writing such things, anytime! As long as he doesn’t do anything illegal like reading out from the banned book, the law and order has no business to meddle with him. In fact, the state has the responsibility to make sure that he can safely move around.

Now should books be banned in a liberal democracy? Shouldn’t there be creative freedom? The ban of this book, or any book for that matter, has to be understood looking into the ways in which this issue was constructed- once constructed sensationally in the public mind and after it captures the attention of the community, governments will end up doing nothing but ban it. Look at Ramanujan’s essay on 300 Ramayanas and the related controversy. Going by our social sense, the essay is unlikely to resurface now in the syllabus and the days might not be away when it will be banned (OUP has already removed it from the new editions). I seriously think we need to come up with a history of bans in India, clearly documenting the community discourses that culminated in the ban.

My sense is that all our communitarian identities are derived around such symbolic instances which mean nothing in social terms. We started a long time ago, with the Sepoy mutiny, when the immediate reason was given as Hindu and Muslim soldiers revolting on an innocuous point like beef-pig meat that was used in the gun powder. Thereafter, our politics never got out of the symbolist matrix. From Khilafat to beef eating to Ram Janmabhumi, a majority of our political high points have been built around empty symbols. So, the need is to get out of this vicious circle of insignificant yet entrapping discourses, and ask why we end up banning books, rather than speaking pro-ban or anti-ban. Secular activists often seem to forget this angle of discourse and history, while talking about the freedom of speech as though it is to be applied universally at all points.

The mistake of the writers, I feel, is to see this as an artistic human right issue for the freedom of expression (If extended such a freedom can surpass sexist/racist/casteist critiques- An enabling concept for cultural justice born out of the heat of anti-semitism in Europe, political correctness too is theoretically repressive to writers!). Far from helping to break the magic spell of communitarianism which converts people into masses, writers always seem to consolidate their “ivory towers” through such a sustained rhetoric, for their special rights as writers vis-à-vis others. In this process they posit moderate individuals against extremist collectives as a rule.


What is so special about writers, after all? And isn’t the possibility to speak your mind in public a typically upper and middle class need? The lower classes and castes cannot even register themselves as individuals given the structure of our society and thus, isn’t the claim that artists represent the feelings of people quite flawed? Even if we theoretically grant it to every one, how far is it going to make a difference?

As is already established, Rushdie has been transcended to an issue: a nice one for the BJP (to say how Hindus are always sidelined and humiliated by ‘populist politicians’) and the Congress (to project themselves as Muslim supporters for now, defining the Muslim community around “null issues” such as these. Remember, they have to now do something to keep Hindus and Christians happy and thus consolidate communities yet again) for the election. On this “victory for the pride of the community”, Muslim clerics and political leaders can continue their bargain in the name of the community, the socio-economic issues of most of its lower caste/lower class members they won’t need to bother with. The global sensibility is convinced of its established views on Islam as everything that the progressive-read westernized- of the world is not (See, proven yet again!).

Well, why would any one not love a good ban?


N P Ashly: Young intellectual, writer, translator and activist. Writes on Indian politics, Kerala Muslim politics and theatre. Assistant professor in English at St Stephens  College, New Delhi.



Press ctrl+g to toggle between English and Malayalam.