Readers who aren’t shy of courting controversy may wish to check out this list of 10 banned books from Indian Publishers. In the UK we are so used to seeing the progressive, secular face of Indian society that it is easy to forget there are still worrying limits to free speech within the country. Censorship is rarely officially sanctioned by government bodies, but universities and publishers are subject to intense pressure from cultural and religious groups who are often sensitive to insult.
The backlash sometimes result in books being withdrawn from libraries, university curriculums and bookshops. Although petitions for books to be banned are sometimes overturned in court, they are also sometimes upheld – and there is a growing list of authors who have been forced into exile stemming from harassment and even death threats.
Set in the context of political upheaval in 1970s Mumbai, Mistry’s 1991 novel was deemed to be anti-Marathi by Aditya Thackeray, leader of the right-wing Shiv Sena political party. Thackeray’s strongly worded campaign against the book led to it being withdrawn from Mumbai University’s English Literature curriculum in 2010. The ban has since been reviewed but remains in place – under fear by the University of its reintroduction sparking disturbances on campus.
James Laine’s fictional biography of the (historical) 17th century warrior king Shivaji Bhonsle was considered inflammatory by Hindu nationalists in the Mumbai area, who took offence at what they saw as a derogatory portrayal of the king in the novel. The outcry culminated in an attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute by an enraged mob. The state authorities in Maharashtra – west of the Pune-Mumbai area that was the scene of most of the disturbances – banned the novel on the grounds that it ‘promoted social enmity’. This decision was overturned by the Mumbai High Court, although the publisher (Oxford University Press at the time) decided to withdraw the book from the Indian market.
Jaswant Singh’s masterful, if controversial biography of Jinnah was criticised for its portrayal of Indian National Congress leaders Sardar Patel and Nehru. Singh was a leading member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the time, from which he was summarily expelled after the publication of the book! The Gujarat state legislature promptly banned the book, although this was overruled by the state’s High Court in December 2016. [Click here] for a full review of this controversial book elsewhere on our blog.
Bangladeshi-Swedish poet and human rights activist Taslima Nasrin is no stranger to censorship. Several of her books were banned in her native Bangladesh between 1994 and 2004, but it was only in 2003 that the third volume of her autobiography was outlawed by the Indian state legislature in West Bengal. Her advocacy of women’s rights and freedom of speech were deemed hostile to the Muslim community, who read in her words a criticism of Islam. Although the decision to ban her work was eventually overturned on appeal through the Calcutta High Court, persistent harassment led Nasrin to leave India for voluntary exile in the USA.
Mridula Garg’s steamy tale of a conservative Indian housewife’s affair with a Scottish missionary led to the author being arrested and charged under the Indian Obscenities Act in 1979. The novel was legally banned for three years and although now available in principle, is still difficult to purchase in India.
Depictions of free love in the 2010 historical fiction novel One Part Woman drew furious crowds to the streets of Thiruchengode in Madras state for protests which quickly turned violent. Petitions from conservative Tamil religious leaders for the book to be banned were rejected by the Madras High Court. Despite this, Muragan was relentlessly harassed on Facebook, to the extent that he felt compelled to withdraw all copies of the novel from sale and give up his writing career in January 2015. Fortunately Muragan reversed this decision and continues to publish books of poetry.
The controversy surrounding The Hindus: An Alternative History came as no surprise to author Wendy Doniger, who had deliberately set out to provide an alternative view of Hindu religious history to the official narrative by conservative and government groups. Doniger was careful to cite her sources, but was nevertheless strongly criticised by Dinanath Batra (founder of militant Hindu organisation Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti), who fought a successful lawsuit that forced the publisher to withdraw the book from sale in India. The author subverted the ruling the following year by republishing her book with a new publisher under a different title.
The Satanic Verses is arguably the most controversial novel ever written by an Indian author. As a provocative fictional biography of Mohammed, the novel drew worldwide opprobrium from enraged Muslim groups, culminating in in official death threats from Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. These were no idle words. In 1988, Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered and his Norwegian publisher shot three times – but remarkably survived. Salman Rushdie himself withdrew to self-imposed exile in the UK, where he remains under police protection at a closely guarded address. India banned the novel soon after its publication in 1988. It remains in place 30 years later.
Scottish journalist Hamish MacDonald faced Mafia style threats and intimidation even while researching his candid biography of petrochemical mogul Dhirubhai Ambani in 1997. The controversial founder of Reliance Industry had been dogged by allegations of financial malpractice and unethical investments since the early 1980s. The publication of McDonald’s book in Australia led to a string of injunctions through the Indian courts to prevent the Indian edition going to press. These were unsuccessful, although the furore prompted publisher Harper Collins not to proceed with publication in India. A heavily edited (some would say whitewashed) version was subsequently published in India under the title ‘Ambani & Sons’.
Pulitzer Prize winner Lelyveld’s revisionist biography of Mahatma Gandhi was not well received in India. The book praised Gandhi’s achievements but also spoke of his many political disappointments and his failure to implement the much-needed social reforms that formed the core of his original agenda. It also shone a light into the darker recesses of Gandhi’s soul, revealing a complex character racked by contradictions and inner demons. Among its controversial claims was the suggestion that Gandhi was homosexual and had several same sex relationships in his youth. Gandhi’s racist and Hindu chauvinist opinions are also exposed in lurid detail, painting a unsettling counterpoint to the usual hagiographic biographies of India’s great independence leader. ‘Great Soul’ was banned in Gujarat following negative newspaper reviews in 2011. The ban remains in place in Gujarat state but not elsewhere in India.
Freedom of speech is at the heart of the secular, democratic way of life. Readers are under no obligation to support the viewpoints of any of these banned authors, but few would disagree that free and open debate – coupled with tolerance – is the key to a broad and progressive intellectual culture. India has changed enormously for the better in recent years. Diaspora communities, publishing companies and cosmopolitan Indian authors play a crucial role in this change. Let us hope that the drive towards greater tolerance is irresistible and the phenomena of banned books will soon become a thing of the past.