In the Middle Ages, the Roman church burned books that dared present an opposing viewpoint. Authors who failed to heed this warning risked being burned at the stake.
We are not in the Middle Ages today. But anyone interested in liberty must be disturbed by the burning of Arun Shourie’s book, Worshipping False Gods by some MPs last Friday. They said that he had twisted facts, misquoted Dr Ambdekar to make him appear anti-national, instigated prejudice and violence against Dalits. And so they demanded a ban on the book.
The reasons given by the Roman Church for burning books and authors were disturbingly similar. The Church too professed to be a guardian of morality and order, and accused liberals from Galileo to Voltaire of twisting facts, hurting the sentiments of people, uttering untruths, sowing disaffection and encouraging violence. Our book-burning MPs may feel outraged by Shourie’s book, but should remember that the Roman Church felt no less outraged in its time.
The progress of civilisation lies in rising above narrow outrage and giving an honourable place to dissent. If you disagree with a scholar, meet his arguments and convince people that he is wrong, instead of burning or banning his books. The right to free thought Bras” pioneered by intellectual giants like Voltaire who said, ‘I disagree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to disagree.’
In this article I do not wish to go into whether Arun Shourie’s book on Ambedkar is fair or unfair, valuable or worthless. These are red herrings. The cardinal principle of liberty is that we have no right to ban a book merely because it is wrong, unfair or worthless. Indeed, history teaches us that ideas regarded as wrong and unfair in one era can become the conventional wisdom in another era.
The whole basis of scholarship is that honest, well-meaning people will look at the same facts and come to dramatically different conclusions. Scholars routinely accuse one another of distortion, getting facts wrong, and misleading people. They do not burn each other’s books.
Wrongness and unfairness must not be determined by censors. If we regard a book as wrong or unfair, we must challenge the facts and logic of the author, and win over people to our viewpoint. If, however, we think it legitimate to use fire, violence or bans to bludgeon into submission those we disagree with, we are on the path to replacing the Constitution of India with Mein Kampf.
MPs say the feelings of Dalits have been hurt. But does not the Manu Smriti hurt the feelings of all lower-caste Indians? Does not the Bible hurt unbelievers by saying they will all go to hell? Does not the Koran hurt those whom it regards as kafiirs? And can the solution be to ban all these works ?
Our founding fathers like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were liberals whom Voltaire would have been proud of. They would have shuddered at the illiberalism that is now spreading. So too, I suspect, would Ambedkar. The criticisms expressed by Shourie are not new, and were also expressed when Ambedkar was alive. His reaction was altogether more civilised than those we witness today by people speaking in his name.
The Shourie incident is not an isolated one. It is one more in a chain of incidents shoving that forces of intolerance are steadily gaining over those of liberty, and that the political class is bending with the maligned new wind. Just a few days earlier, the government decided to stop BBC from filming Salman Rushdie’s epic. Midnight’s Children. Why? Because somebody in power feared that the sentiments of some community might be hurt. Now, another book of Rushdie’s, The Satanic Verses, certainly outraged many Muslims, but who on earth can think that Midnight’s Children falls into the same category? Only those who are so dismissive of liberty or freedom that they are willing to ban anything relating to a controversial author.
Two years ago, film-maker Mani Ratnam made Bombay, a film depicting the communal riots of 1992-93. It was not a particularly good film, but it did not seek to inflame communal sentiments. On the contrary, it attempted (though unconvincingly) to find a solution to communal violence. Yet there was an outcry from some communal Muslims (by no means from the whole Muslim community), and the film was banned in some states. Worse, a bomb was thrown at Mani Ratnam.
The trend continues. We are in the throes of growing intolerance, where every author, film-maker and thinker has to start looking over his or her shoulder. This, after 50 years of supposed liberal democracy.
Why? There are many reasons, but a key one is the rise of identity politics. At independence, differences between political parties related to ideas and principles. The debate was about which policies were right or wrong.
Today politics is based mainly on identity. Elections are fought not mainly on the basis of what -, principles you stand for but which ‘ caste, religion or region you represent. And if you belong to the right community, you are likely to be elected no matter how unprincipled, corrupt or criminal you may be.
Identity politics tends to erode liberty. It tends to justify the use of any means to further the aims of a community. Through history, identity politics has been the source of repression, pogroms, fascism, and slaughter. Tragically, we seem to be moving in this direction. ‘
The poet Rabindranatit Tagore had a magnificent vision of the India of his dreams. ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not broken up by narrow domestic walls; where words come out from the depths of truth; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sands of dead habit……into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.’
Where are those ideals today? Nehru and Gandhiji may have sworn by them, but today’s politicians have created a new, more malignant reality. Where the mind is full of fear of hurting vote banks, and the head is held discreetly low; where knowledge is free only after screening by self-appointed censors; where the world has been broken up by walls of caste, religion and region; where words come out of the depths of political opportunism; where the clear stream of reason has lost its way into the dreary desert sand of appeasing every group that threatens violence if criticised; into that heaven of unfreedom has my country awoken after 50 years of independence.