In October 1988, the Indian government under prime minister Rajiv Gandhi banned Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Gandhi was accused by many, including the author himself of bowing to fundamentalist pressure. Quarter of a century later, as a saffron wave sweeps India, publisher Penguin, in response to Hindu plaintiffs has agreed to recall and pulp American scholar Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus.
Wikipedia has a (possibly not very comprehensive and updated) list of as many as 35 books that are, or have been at some point banned in India starting 1924. The Daily Beast did a compilation in 2011 of the most famous of them. They include The Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld a pulitzer prize winning journalist which hinted at Mahatma Gandhi's gay love affair, The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh which alleged that former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai was a CIA informant, and Jinnah: India Partition Independence by politician Jaswant Singh which portrayed a reasonable portrait of the man, while criticizing Congress leaders like Nehru & Patel.
Ironically the BJP that usually has its daggers out with the Congress, expelled Singh, banned the book in Gujarat, which was later revoked by a court order. Several other political narratives including Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Edwards, Who Killed Gandhi by Lourenco de Salvador etc have also been proscribed on grounds ranging from 'grievous factual errors' to being 'ill-researched and inflammatory'.
The growing list of books being withdrawn doesn't limit itself to political biographies or works allegedly hurting religious sentiments. Last year alone saw two scathing accounts on business establishments being muzzled - Tamal Bandyopadhyay's Sahara: The Untold Story and Jitendra Bhargava's 'The Descent of Air India' which was withdrawn by publisher Bloomsbury in response to a case filed by former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel who came in for severe flak in the book for bringing the country's national carrier to financial ruin. Hamish McDonald's 1998 account of the controversial rise of industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani - The Polyester Prince, is another prominent business biography in this iniquitous list.
Constitutionally, India grants limited freedom of expression to its citizens. Article 19 gives all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression but imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right "in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence."
From the legal standpoint then, certain interdictions could well be valid. It should also be perfectly acceptable to challenge defamatory or libelous content, especially when it exposes individuals, historical figures or business groups to public derision or disrepute with mala fide intent.
But with such an alarming number of books being crushed under the garb of legalese, it is perhaps time to take stock of whether our complicated jurisprudence is being used to preserve order or is merely being exploited by interest groups to curtail freedom of speech.
Also, with concerted attempts at censorship in the age of freedom, to borrow from the book title of British journalist Nick Cohen, it is difficult not to link India's love affair with banning books to a growing politico-religious intolerance and a shrinking space for secular, liberal values. The trend is noticeable not merely in publishing, but also in mainstream broadcast and print media - which has seen a string of high profile journalists exit as a result of receding editorial sovereignty and growing management interference. This has been further ascribed to ugly, profit-motivated political biases that have crept out of corporate owners seen to be cronies of ruling establishments. Just today Reporters Without Borders has ranked India an abysmal 140th out of 180 countries on press freedom. Siddharth Vardarajan, the Ex-Hindu editor succinctly summed up the scenario in a tweet recently. He said - In the emergency, media owners crawled when asked to bend. Now several are bending even before asker is in a position of power.
The silencing is apparent also on social media - where certain politicians have been accused of employing a battery of paid cyber thugs to muffle moderate opinion. And it is visible on the internet as a whole, where instances of censorship and government take-down requests to companies like Google have increased.
These months ahead of the general elections has seen an eerie undercurrent of tension in news rooms, as a fiscally diminished, editorially compromised and hagiographically inclined media sees several covert and overt attempts at being stifled. Doniger's book may have been problematic, and the publisher could have had valid reasons to take it down, but one can't help but see it as manifestation of the larger trend of editorial disempowerment being witnessed - at TV stations, in newspaper offices and at publishing houses.