ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Proscribing the ‘Inconvenient’

War over Words: Censorship in India, 1930–1960 by Devika Sethi, Cambridge University Press, 2019; pp 325, ₹ 676 (hardcover).

To be or not to be” was the soliloquy of the Prince of Denmark. However, to ban or not to ban, or more pertinently, to censor or not to censor, was a similar existential, Hamletian dilemma faced by the colonial state and, later, independent India. The colonial state’s record with free speech and censorship has been a rather chequered one as was indicated by the ban on books like The Face of Mother India (1935) by Katherine Mayo. However, underlining the truism inherent in French author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous statement, “The more things change, more they remain the same,” books by Arthur Koestler (The Lotus and the Robot; 1960), Stanley Wolpert (Nine Hours to Rama; 1962) and Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses; 1988) were proscribed post-independence.

The desire of the government of the day to control the narrative and block “offending” points of view and the use of snoopware like Pegasus has given rise to fears that we may indeed be living out an Orwellian nightmare. In the battlefield of ideas, censorship is one part of the larger surveillance superstructure and the project to mould opinions. Hence, War over Words: Censorship in In­dia, 1930–1960 by Devika Sethi is a timely book. Underlining how censorship and the regulation on expression has to be analysed in the larger perspective of events and motivations that shaped them, the author notes that the content of banned material is less important to the story than the context of the ban. Sethi also analyses “the question of ­intent” and the larger, complex issues like truth as a defence, relevance of ­intent and the need for the government to establish an author’s intent to hurt a community’s sentiments before taking a decision on the ban.

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Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020

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