What is common with Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Erasmus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Blaise Pascal, Bernard Mandeville, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Anatole France, Wendy Doniger and Salman Rushdie? They all fell foul for what Swift called “the sin of wit”: irreverence in the form of satire, parody, irony, or mockery in combination with dissenting ideas on religion or philosophy.
Poor Wendy Doniger must take some perverse relish in the fate of Solzhenitsyn’s works by the Soviet government, or in the fate of at least four Nobel Prize winners such as Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala, Gao Xingjian of the People’s Republic of China, Duong Thu Huong of Vietnam, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer of Indonesia who had their entire oeuvre banned by the respective governments.
In a masterly compendium titled 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature edited by Nicholas J Karolides, Margaret Bald and Dawn B Sova, it is well documented how thousands of writers, journalists, and other intellectuals have been jailed and unknown numbers executed or assassinated, since the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran. Egyptian writer Farag Fouda and Algerian novelist and journalist Tahar Djaout, among many others, were murdered during the 1990s by fundamentalists. In 1994, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed and seriously wounded. Other writers, such as Taslima Nasreen of Bangladesh, have been driven into exile by death threats or, like Egyptian novelist Alaa Hamed, sentenced to prison for blasphemy. The writing of feminists such as Nasreen, Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt, and Fatima Mernissi of Morocco, who challenge interpretations of Islamic dogma that restrict women, have particularly angered both governments and Islamists.
Are the national governments only to blame for imposing censorship? Time and again, local communities, school board members or citizens, individually or in groups have taken upon themselves the enviable task of moral policing, parallel to the censorship challenges at the national level. If local communities in America might take an exception to canonical classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Colour Purple, The Grapes of Wrath, The Jungle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Tropic of Cancer, what chance can an AK Ramanujan, a James Laine, or a Wendy Doniger have?
In India, the governments have always lent more primacy to the right to take offence than to the right to free speech and have capitulated to lumpen elements and mob intimidation, two glaring instances of which are the ways how both Taslima Nasreen and MF Husain were hounded out of the country. This time, a publishing house as reputable as Penguin India and a scholar as redoubtable as Wendy Doniger had to kowtow, literally, to the diktats of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS) — a sibling of the larger RSS — and its chief Dinanath Batra who have arrogated to themselves the assiduous task of filtering a “British-Brahmin version of Hinduism” — to coin a phrase from Pankaj Mishra — from the smut of purported paganism bedevilling it. And just in case our libertarian rage is ranged against the Sangh Parivar, it must be put on record that the Left Front government of West Bengal also banned Nasreen’s Dwikhandita in April 2004 and confiscated copies of the book from the publisher and book sellers.
Why blame Hinduism alone? Following the invention of the printing press in 1450 and the rise of religious dissent during the Protestant Reformation, when unauthorised Bible translations and religious tracts began to be circulated, the Church was prompted to expand its censorial functions so much that by 1559, Pope Paul IV published the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books), that became binding on all Roman Catholics, who represented most of the population of continental Europe, and was enforced by government authorities.
The curious fact is that in the 42nd and final Index issued in 1948 and in print until 1966, a total of 4,126 books were still prohibited to Catholics: 1,331 from the 17th century or earlier, 1,186 from the 18th century, 1,354 from the 19th century, and 255 from the 20th century. Among the list of the proscribed, the banned and the forbidden were some of the finest thinkers of Western thought: Bentham, Bergson, Comte, Defoe, Descartes, Diderot, Flaubert, Gibbon, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Mill, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Pascal, Rousseau, Sand, Spinoza, Stendhal, Voltaire, and Zola.
Earlier, Batra accused Doniger of “a shallow, distorted and non-serious presentation of Hinduism” which was “riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”, which is squarely antithetical to Rushdie’s view on the subject: that “there are no subjects that are off limits and that includes God, includes prophets.” Rub is, from the earliest times, religious orthodoxy and politics have been intimately connected, with recorded examples dating to the trial of Socrates in 399 BC.
So, Doniger might have taken a cue from James Laine that could have spared her from the wishful anticipation of a creative controversy following her book. Laine, author of the ill-fated book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, and consequent to his book, subject to many death threats, once expressed concern for the chilling effect on scholarship in India. “Storytellers have gone to great lengths to preserve the popular image of their hero,” Laine said. “The purpose of academics is not to support the heroes of the State. There is no way scholarship can function under the restriction [of upholding] an ideal portrait as some kind of moral standard.”
In her book, Doniger stressed on the need of an “interreligious dialogue” to contextualise Hinduism that could lay itself open as much to the microscopic view of the insider as to the telescopic view of outsiders — from Marx and Freud to Foucault and Edward Said.
Most non-Hindu scholars of Hinduism, Doniger rued, strike a pose of appeasement in order to avoid offence. But, unbeknownst to both Laine and Doniger, India is a land of hagiographies.
The only heartening thing is the technology. As Europe became more politically fragmented and means of communication more sophisticated, State censorship was rarely thorough enough to prevent forbidden books from circulating. Post-ban Wendy Doniger, much like post-ban Salman Rushdie, can command a wider virtual readership now, as however much a book is banned, readers cannot be prevented from reading it, by fair means or foul.
The author is a teacher, reviewer and social commentator