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Proscribing the ‘Inconvenient’

Dhaval Kulkarni ( is a journalist and author of The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of Their Senas.

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.

Spanning the period on the cusp of ­India’s transition from British rule to ­independence, the book covers hitherto little-known topics. Incidentally, while the Constitution granted freedom of ­expression, which was, however, subject to reasonable restrictions, the continuation of censorship in postcolonial India was justified as “being essential to the creation of a liberal, secular democracy.”

The book includes the record of Congress governments in protecting or prosecuting free speech, publications by non-Indians that were banned between the 1920s and 1940s, the controversy they generated and critiques of India that were banned or a demand was made for their ban, like the four books by Mayo, one of which was criticised by M K Gandhi as the ­report of a drain inspector.

One section deals with censorship during World War II and another analyses press censorship during the partition riots. The book also examines the legal framework and instruments of the state to impose censorship and bans. It deals with a critical question. Does banning books remove them from circulation, or enhance their appeal for readers? In a eulogy to the power of the printed word, it records how “the pleasure of reading banned books was matched by the thrill of acquiring and reading newspapers with nationalist sympathies” and how censorship is indeed ineffective in many ways. Based on their biases, ignorance and ill-informed notions, the people on the ground, who enforce the writ of the state, often decide how the rules will be implemented.

For instance, the revolutionary Sher Jung, who spent 14 years in prison on charges of sedition, was allowed to ­access books sent by friends or libraries without delay or censor in return for praising the poems of the assistant jailor. However, there was only one condition, namely that the word “revolution” was not to appear in the title. As a result, the jailor-cum-censor allowed the prisoner to read works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mikhail Bakunin and Georges Sorel, while, however, not permitting books on the industrial revolution and those by H G Wells, as according to his (jailor’s) information, Wells had written something derogatory about Prophet Muhammad! The jailor also did not like Freud as he was “told on authority by someone he knew” that his works
consisted of nothing but pornography (pp 34–35).

Provincial Governments

But, one of the most interesting chapters in Sethi’s book deals with the often fraught and paradoxical relationship of the Congress governments with free speech and issues of censorship. The Government of India Act, 1935, and the grant of provincial autonomy saw Congress ministries being formed in seven of the 11 provinces of British India in 1937. This was a “unique situation” as an opponent of the colonial state assumed power, albeit partial, under the colonial framework.

This assumption of power required the Congress ministries to strike a delicate balancing act of upholding their nationalist credentials, and combating political militants with the help of the Raj, while also seeking the support of the militants to challenge it.

The Pandit Parmanand case (pp 54–57) highlighted these paradoxes. Parmanand had been sentenced to death by the British in 1915 for participating in an anti-colonial conspiracy, and the sentence was later reduced to transportation for life. He was released in August 1937 after the Congress came to power in the United Provinces and began a tour of the province during which he delivered speeches that were termed incendiary. While the British governor was in favour of his prosecution, the Congress premier G B Pant, who was wary about the impact on public opinion and his core constituency, felt a warning should be given as a precursor to prosecution.

While the governor and the premier were working out a compromise, Parmanand was arrested in Delhi for a different ­offence. After consulting the Congress high command, the United Provinces government ­decided not to agree to Parmanand’s prosecution on charges of sedition, and suggested instead that he be imprisoned on the basis of the Delhi case. The United Provinces premier would then issue a warning for violent speeches but would not be ­directly blamed for his prosecution on another charge.

Conditions for a Ban

As Sethi notes, the subsequent years were to prove that it was easy for Indian nationalists to uphold the ideal of free speech when in opposition to the colonial state rather than when they themselves assumed state power (p 57). In the case of Mayo (her four books on India were controversial), it was her fourth book, cited at the beginning of this review, that was finally proscribed. Ironically, two-thirds of this book, which was on the subject of the Hindu–Muslim conflict, consisted of 406 photographs, with the introductory part covering just 41 pages. Of all her books, this was the one in which the Indian people at large had taken the least interest. The ban also gave it publicity, with the publishers marketing the book as being banned in India (pp 70–75).

Much like the situation even today, Sethi writes that in those days, a book was most likely to be banned if vociferous protests led to or threatened to lead to violence (p 89). In the chapter on publications by non-Indians that were offensive to Indian Muslims, the author argues that in the colonial times, communities had an interest in presenting a united face and lobbying the Indian state. It was controversies over books and publications that provided them with an opportunity to consolidate, something that is relevant even today. A recurring theme in such books that fell afoul of the community were the pictorial representations or illustrations of the prophet of Islam or his wives (like the Britannia and Eve case of 1930 and the Pearson’s Weekly case of 1934). British journals also used to print controversial articles about the prophet, his wives and Islam in the 1930s, but these controversies were not necessarily responded to with a ban (for instance, the Every Woman’s Case of 1935).

The book notes that in such cases, it was the quantum of offence as gauged by the number of complaints or the prominence of the complainant that ­determined the chances of a ban. The colonial state was most responsive to ­demands for censorship of publications when these took the form of lobbying by groups threatening violence. With The Outline of History by H G Wells (1920), factors like the time that had lapsed since the publication of the book, reputation of the author as a “serious” writer and the short-lived duration of the protests, also led to a ban not being imposed. Eventually, in 1936, the India office wrote to British editors warning them of “the main dangers to be avoided when writing any article dealing with Islam” to prevent any objectionable references from appearing in print. However, publications continued to offend, indicating the limitations of this “censorship by diktat.”

Important Misses

However, while the “Rangila Rasul” controversy (in the 1920s) falls out of the ambit of this book, a discerning reader cannot help but feel that the author should have touched upon the case in some detail, considering the churn it caused in society. Similarly, the ban on Angaaray (1932), a collection of short stories in Urdu, which catalysed the formation of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association, which included stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, should also have been dealt with. The book also covers cases of works like The Last Home of Mystery (1929) by E Alexander Powell (1929: 78–80) and Dust of India (1937) by Frank Harrison Beckmann (1938: 87–88), which were not banned despite vociferous campaigns.

A common strand that runs through controversial and banned books by Western writers was the neglect of nuance and the tone-deaf, blatant stereotyping of India, its people, their customs and social mores, something that the West is guilty of even today.

In her introduction, the author makes an interesting point: the term “censorship” is derived from the Latin word “censure”—to estimate or reckon—from which the term “census” is also derived. “Since censorship, like the census, is a form of surveillance, in ancient Rome census takers and censors had closely aligned responsibilities,” she says. Here, the parallels with controversial legislations like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, National Population Register and National Register of Citizens are unmissable.

Need for a Sequel

Another observation of the colonials that low literacy levels gave educated Indians disproportionate influence and force to the spoken word in opinion formation and rumours holds true even ­today. Though, this is so in changed circumstances with the rise of social media and the phenomenon of fake news. Sethi’s book is a tour de force covering a wide swathe from 1930 to 1960, but the changing nature of expression and the difficulty in proscribing views on these platforms may require a sequel.

Apart from print and electronic media, the mediums of expression also include digital and social media platforms. But, while newspapers, print publications, and news channels are covered under extant laws and regulations, the proliferating Facebook and WhatsApp groups, Twitter and TikTok handles, and YouTube channels have posed a challenge to the authority of the Indian state’s blue pencils. While books can be banned, newspapers can be forced to cease publication, and news channels can be taken off air, the very nature of expression on these social media platforms makes it difficult to proscribe “offending” or inconvenient views.

It will be interesting to see how things shape up on this frontier as a cat-and-mouse game is played out. A sequel covering acts of censorship from the 1960s onwards may also be necessary, considering the subsequent ban on books by authors like Rushdie and Koestler.

As Milan Kundera notes, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting; 1979).




Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020


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