STATE heads’ and governments’ list of headaches is growing longer.

Not only have they had to add electronic media such as Facebook and Twitter, with their worrying potential to stir up trouble and perhaps even bring about revolutions, now there’s WikiLeaks as well. And meanwhile, it’s not like they can cross the good old-fashioned book off the list either.

The latest book giving some people a headache is Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, written by Pulitzer prize-winner Joseph Lelyveld. On Wednesday Gujarat’s state assembly voted unanimously on a ban — even though the members had not read the book, which has not yet been released in India. (Gujarat also temporarily banned Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence.)

Their decision seems to be based on reports about early reviews of the book in the US and the UK, some of which suggest that Lelyveld writes of Gandhi being in a homosexual relationship.

Tridip Suhrud, a noted Gandhian scholar who interacted with Lelyveld while he was researching the book — and, crucially, has read it — stands with the author’s claim that he does not refer to Gandhi as bisexual. In interviews to the Indian press, he has called it the first political biography of Gandhi by an expert on apartheid.

In terms of the furore over passages relating to the nature of Gandhi’s relationship with a German man named Hermann Kallenbach, Suhrud points out an important aspect of the matter — how crucial context is. He has been quoted by the press as explaining how in earlier decades men often addressed each other in a manner that would now be construed differently.

Giving the example of the letters exchanged by Rabindranath Tagore and C.F. Andrews, he said, “Andrews wrote to Tagore in a manner that might raise eyebrows today. But the context was different then as also the usage of words.”

Context is everything and what is considered unacceptable at one time or place may become acceptable later, or elsewhere. Books have through the ages suffered from being too ‘advanced’ for a particular time and place. Consider D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in the US and UK for violating obscenity laws.

A great number of books, many of them recognised later or elsewhere as being fine pieces of work, have been banned for political reasons. Dr Zhivago, for example, was banned by Russia until 1988 for its criticism of the Bolshevik party. George Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm, which is today part of the English literature curriculum in many countries, was found by the Allied forces of the Second World War to be critical of the USSR. The book was considered too controversial to print during wartime, including by publishers, and copies of it were withdrawn from bookstores and libraries.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s 1982 book, The Gulag Archipelago, was banned in the Soviet Union because it ran contrary to the image the government was trying to project of itself.

The logic behind banning these books is simple to understand, whether one agrees with it or not. Yet lists of books that various countries have banned, and the reasons, make for interesting and sometimes surprising reading.

The Da Vinci Code was, for instance, banned in Lebanon because Catholic leaders found it offensive to their religion. Lebanon also banned The Diary of Anne Frank for portraying Jews, Israel and Zionism favourably. In 1966, Yugoslavia banned by court order the Dictionary of Modern Serbo-Croatian Language because, apparently, “some definitions can cause disturbance among citizens”.

The Chinese province of Hunan banned, in 1931, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for what seems, on the face of it, to be a bizarre reason: that it portrayed anthropomorphised animals as acting to the same degree of complexity as human beings.

Sometimes, despite bans, the books are available regardless. But occasionally, bans are so severely enforced that even the author’s existence is in danger of being wiped out.

That was nearly the case with Chinese writer Shen Congwen (1902-1988). A writer and research scholar of historical cultural relics, his work was denounced by both the communists and the nationalists. The books were banned in Taiwan and on mainland China publishing houses burned his books and even destroyed their printing plates. In effect, his name was to a large extent simply erased from the modern Chinese literary record. It was only in 1978 that the Chinese government reissued selections of his writing, and then only in limited editions.

Pakistan too is no stranger to banned books, though one often feels that some of the literature that really ought to be banned — the pamphlets inciting sectarian and communal hatred, militancy and anarchy — remain freely available. The most notable example is, of course, The Satanic Verses that led to deadly protests and riots. The incendiary book was also banned in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia and a number of other countries.

Some documents on the web say that Stanley Wolpert’s 1982 book, Jinnah of Pakistan, was also banned (while India banned the same author’s 1962 book Nine Hours to Rama, apparently because it exposes security lapses that led to Gandhi’s assassination.).

Books are dangerous because they can contain ideas that can change the world. But are bans necessary or effective? Governments around the world clearly think so. Yet it might be worth pondering how far the state ought to dictate its citizenry’s thoughts.

The writer is a member of staff.



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