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Bible and Ban

It is not often that one beats up one’s mother. Even in the context of such a rare outrage, opinion may differ. There is perhaps nothing that  inspires absolute unanimity. That rude and rustic saying rang out in my mind with new reports of ban of holy books in schools and removal of testaments of democracy from texts. The ban story comes from Salt Lake City. The atrocity on democracy has been detected in New Delhi and Kottayam.

Let us discuss the second point first. A Malayalam newspaper went to town--and village--the day before yesterday with an incisive story of some cardinal content being excluded from school texts prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Next day it was followed by a stentorian leader. The essence of the journalistic crusade was, as the caption read, that democracy had been reduced to a “memory” with the removal of some parts from some texts.

“Nothing happens to democracy,” says P Ravindran Nayar, veteran journalist. He has been witness to such guttural outbursts with an unvarying theme, “democracy is in danger,” during the past half century. Like socialism of the Avadi vintage in the sixties, democracy has long been a fashionable slogan, mouthed by those who theoretically uphold it as well those who invoke an exclusive brand, “people’s democracy.” Like socialism, misshapen with all kinds of people sporting it, democracy is also universally advocated, as a cap fit for every political head or its lack.

A largely acceptable view is that democracy is the best form of political governance since it represents the will of the people. Francis Fukuyama went so far as to argue that nothing better may happen in the annals of mankind and thus it reaches the “end of history.” Anything can be deified or demonized in the name of democracy. An alternative but unpopular theory floated by thinkers like Ortega Gasset is that the “revolt of the masses,” leading to a “leveling of sensibility” may not be the  ultimate road to an ideal social destination. Nothing may be intrinsically bad because it has no mass takers, nothing may be necessarily good because the masses like it at a given point of time.

So, as Ravindran Nayar says, those who cry from the housetops ``democracy is in danger” need not be worried. A rearrangement of the school curriculum cannot shake up the whole system. There is no gainsaying that a gargantuan bogey of saffronisation has been at work for long. Hindu hotheads have only aggravated it in a reflexive response. For instance, there were those like P N Oak who set up an institute  to rewrite Indian history, even challenging the fact of the authorship of the Taj Mahal. Those of Oak’s ilk, even those less irascible, would accept the depredations of central Asian immigrants as a secular and innocuous historical conquest. The memories of defiling shrines and levying a cess (jizya) on people of other faiths are not easily forgotten or forgiven. There were  indeed thinkers like K R Malkani who had a nice word for Aurangzeb and Tippu Sultan even when they were a tiny, solitary, faction within the burgeoning Hindu armada. It was a Malkani committee which cleared a Doordarshan serial, The Sword of Tipu Sultan, even in the face of large sections of south Indian viewers.

The Marxists are alarmed. Historically, they have sought to be recognized as guardians of the minorities and the champions of democratic rights. It was long assumed that their following will widen among Muslims if they run down Hindutva oracles. That their reign smacked of totalitarianism wherever, whenever, they seized power through the bourgeois ballot or armed revolution is an overwhelming twentieth century irony. 

The Marxist mindset in Kerala was revealed when it was resolved to throw overboard NCERT textbooks or their relevant chapters and continue with newly challenged versions of history and geography. Narendra Modi’s party and its dons have taken the position that medieval history laid disproportionate emphasis on the Mughal period, playing down the scintillating role of the Pallavas and the Cholas and the scions of the ruthlessly liquidated Vijayanagara empire. 

What is arguably characterized as saffronisation is defended as an endeavor to restore balance to the study of Indian history, nay, Hindu history, as chronic critics of the Modi era are wont to present it. At the same time, it must be conceded that Modi’s men are afflicted by an unmistakable saffron syndrome. I remember a towering Hindu enthusiast, P Parameswaran, telling me that the RSS would never be able to wipe the blood of Gandhi off its face just as the Indian communists would not carry conviction when they explain their dubious stance during the freedom struggle. 

It was painfully funny when they came up with a class analysis turning an “imperialist war” into a “people’s war” so as to abide by the Soviet view of a phase of the Second World War. Conversely, the Hindu militia would ever fail to wash the stains of saffronism off its progenitor, Savarkar. Even Godse seemed becoming less unexceptionable when Justice G D Khosla, hearing the appeal of the Gandhi killer in the Punjab High Court, suggested that the assassin would have been aquitted if the jury system were in prevalence. Justice Khosla has not been forgiven. But it points to the possibility that someone who was held a criminal once could be hailed as a freedom fighter, martyr, over time and space. Revision of history follows as a  matter of course.

When the new essay in saffronism, leading to a hue and cry of endangered democracy, was being debated in this part of the world, a most unlikely book was taken out of school curriculum in Salt Lake City, USA. Parents of some students in Davis education district complained that a book contained  “violence and vulgarity” and it should be taken off the school library shelves. Which a concerned school committee promptly did. The impugned book is one with which we have been traditionally familiar, which we uphold as a great testament of faith, The Bible. Specifically, what is under reference is  the King James version compiled and corrected by a galaxy of scholars and word masters including William Shakespeare. What is violent and vulgar about it is uncertain but a school committee was told that the Bible had portions violating a law against offensive literature adopted last year.

It follows that anything can be banned if the Bible is banned. We have seen secular and not so secular governments buckling under pressure and banning books which hurt the sentiments of one petulant section or the other. No one could be a more pious Christian than Nikos Kazantsakis but a play based on his The Last Temptation of Christ was banned when cassock-clad clergymen took out a procession demanding its proscription. C P Nair, Secretary to the Chief Minister, gave me the text of the play to read. I found it rather tepid but hardly abrasive.

The Marxists who loathe book ban were constrained to outlaw street plays like Nattugaddiga staged by comparatively extremist groups. When it came to his turn, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proscribed Salman Rushdi’s The Satanic Verses before the echo of the first cry of blasphemy from Iran died down. It came my way when I was ransacking the banned books section in a Virginia library. It did not match my quotidian literary taste. Significantly, The Satanic Verses became a tome sought after worldwide.   

Possibly the best hype for a book is a worst trick: Make it look like it contains passages someone somewhere may find offensive, “violent and vulgar” as a school committee in Utah found the Bible. Autobiographically, my publisher, K P R Nair, and I were beneficiaries of the ban of a book I put together narrating the story of T N Seshan who, as the Chief Election Commissioner, raised the hackles among the political glitterati. It was an interrogative reference to the suspected foreign influence on the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu. 

Tamil Makkal were up in arms. There was a competitive litigation, every other politician demanding instant ban of the book which was viewed as an anti-Tamil tirade. Those who did not rush to the court with a petition for ban made a bonfire of the book. As publicity raged, an excited K P R Nair was computing his cash profit--until the release and the sale of the book was ordered by the court. My short point: any book may be banned with planned or assured results just as, as we said in the beginning, it is possible to take a contrary view even when one beats up one’s mom.


More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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