Friday, June 09, 2006

Who Are You Banning?

In journalism we follow one principle when we are not certain about a fact or facts while writing or editing a copy: When in doubt, leave it out. Suppose we are not sure whether Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi is 82 or 83, and if there is no reliable source at hand to verify his age instantly, we leave it out.

Governments, not only in India but also elsewhere, follow a similar policy when faced with controversial situations or tricky issues. The moment they sense an issue could create trouble, they slap a ban. That still makes sense, even though it could mean robbing their subjects of their fundamental rights.

Take, for example, the ban on Satanic Verses. The average Indian reader was not given a chance to decide whether Salman Rushdie’s book was indeed blasphemous. But a lot of times, a ban is slapped merely for historical reasons or to make a symbolic statement in the name of morality, in total disregard of the ground reality.

Indian movies, for example, continue to be banned in Pakistan. And in India, while youngsters in the rest of the country can spend evenings gathered around moisture-coated jugs of beer, their counterparts in Gujarat will still be breaking the law if they drink. Reason: Gujarat is the home-state of Mahatma Gandhi, and since the Mahatma was against the habit of drinking, the Gujaratis cannot drink too. From time to time, various regional parties who come to power on the plank of prohibition ban drinking in their states – only to revoke the ban a few years after.

What’s the point? For that matter, what’s the point in any ban? Does it serve any purpose? Indian movies might be banned in Pakistan, but there would hardly be a Pakistani who is not familiar with Bollywood stars or Hindi songs. Even during the 1987 World Cup, after which Imran Khan was supposed to retire, Pakistani girls, during the semi-final at Lahore against Australia, kept singing in chorus for their hero: “Chalte chalte, mere yeh geet yaad rakhna, kabhi alvida na kehna…” (remember my song: never say goodbye). That’s a hugely popular Kishore Kumar song, not a Pakistani song.

In Pakistan, where alcohol is prohibited for religious reasons, Scotch flows at parties hosted by the well-heeled. And in Gujarat, where alcohol is banned for moral reasons, people who have the money and the means to drink, drink. So at the end of the day, who is the ban enforced for? It is usually for the people who are not connected to the ban in any way. An average Indian, for example, couldn’t have cared less, in the 1980s, about Salman Rushdie’s books. In fact, but for the ban on Satanic Verses, they wouldn’t have even known who Rushdie was. As for the elite who were aware of his earlier works, they could have easily picked up Satanic Verses in either London or New York.

The same goes for drinking: a compulsive drinker, if he is poor, will manage to get his drink anyway, even if it is hooch. That he might pay for it with his life is a different matter. And if he is rich, he will have a bootlegger deliver Scotch at his home. So what about the ban?

Certain bans are outright ridiculous. Like the one on smoking in trains. This is not to defend or extol the habit of smoking, but the point is, if cigarettes are being sold in the market, there are bound to be people smoking them. World over, airports have separate smokers’ lounges. But imagine the plight of a habitual Indian smoker who travels, say, in Raptisagar Express from Gorakhpur to Kochi —a journey of 60 hours! Is he not supposed to smoke during those two and a half days? Little wonder that passengers don’t follow such an impractical ban: the smokers smoke away. Once again, the ban holds good for people who don’t smoke anyway.

But it is unfair to blame India alone: it is still a democracy that is growing up. Today every literarily-inclined Indian has at least heard of Henry Miller, if not read his works. In the West, he is an icon. But Miller was banned in his own country, the US, till the 1960s. The charge was that his writing was pornographic. Many other literary geniuses suffered because of similar bans, one of them being D H Lawrence. Till a few years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was officially banned — I am not sure if it still is — in India. The ban had carried over from the British days.

The English should have learned from the French. It was in France that many of the icons of English literature flourished: Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, D H Lawrence and dozens of other writers, including the writers of the Beat generation. These people could write because Paris, even in the 1920s and 30s, encouraged freedom of expression. If the French went about banning books and writers, can you imagine how poor literature would have been?


Blogger Anu Russell said...

I agree with your logic on banning...

But I consider Satanic verses a blasphemy...not on religious grounds...but on literary grounds!

10:50 AM  
Blogger Dananjay said...

i agree. it's been a few years since the instrument of banning a work of art became a theatrical device for the powers that wield them.

For instance, it's certainly very effective, if you ban the Satanic Verses on the pretext of protecting "muslim interests" when you're trying to sell yourself as a "secular" party. The quotes apply because in India, at least for Indian politics, secular has come to mean pro-minority. Again, minority means muslim :).

BTW: as an aside on the comment above, for someone who is championing the cause of literature, the use of the word blasphemy, in the sense that I presume you've used it, seems wrong.

10:48 AM  
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