'Fahrenheit 451': Empty Bookshelves and Closed Minds?

Author(s): Sumanta Banerjee
Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Jan. 24-30, 2004), pp. 318-319
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4414544 .
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'Fahrenheit 4 5 1 '
Empty
Bookshelves and Closed Minds?
The
Sambhaji Brigade's
vandalism in Pune's Bhandarkar
Oriental Research Institute in the name
of protecting Shivaji's
name
finds
an echo in the West
Bengal Left
Front
government's
ban on the
Bangladeshi
writer Taslima Nasrin's
autobiographical
book Dwikhandito
(Split
in
Two),
on the
plea of maintaining
communal
harmony.
Both indicate the
pathetic
level
of
enlightenment
and intellectual
understanding among
our
public
and
politicians
and raise
important questions
about the wisdom
of
arbitrary official
ban on
dissenting
literature in
general,
and the
validity
of
manipulated popular campaigns against
such
literature that
often prompt
the
banning,
in
particular.
SUMANTA BANERJEE
It
is a
grotesque
India,
where memories
of a
mythical Utopia
are
being sought
to be revived
through
actions which
reproduce
in
reality
its
opposite
- a mon-
strous
Dystopia
that till now used to be
only
a
figment
of the
nightmarish imagi-
nation of science fiction writers. It be-
comes even more bizarre when in such a
situation,
rising religious
orthodoxies and
fading
Leftist
politics
share the same
platform
of intolerance of
dissenting
opinions.
The
Sambhaji Brigade's
vandal-
ism in Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Re-
search Institute
(BORI)
in the name of
protecting Shivaji'
s
memory,
finds its non-
violent echo in the West
Bengal
Left Front
government's
ban on the
Bangladeshi
writer Taslima Nasrin's
autobiographical
book Dwikhandito
(Split
in
Two),
on the
plea
of
maintaining
communal
harmony.
The two events - and the reactions from
the
political bigwigs
- not
only
indicate
the
pathetic
level of
enlightenment
and
intellectual
understanding among
our
public
and
politicians,
but also raise
important questions
about the wisdom of
arbitrary
official ban on
dissenting
litera-
ture in
general,
and the
validity
of
manipu-
lated
popular campaigns against
such lit-
erature that often
prompt
the
banning,
in
particular.
In Maharashtra for
instance,
it
was the
Sambhaji Brigade's
violent
agi-
tation that forced the
government
to im-
pose
a ban on James William Laine's
Shivaji:Hindu King
in Islamic India. In
West
Bengal, campaigns by
sections of
the Muslim
clergy
in the form of com-
plaints
and
threats,
compelled
the
govern-
ment to ban Taslima Nasrin's book. Are
we to understand then that
public
cam-
paigners
or street
agitators
are
being
re-
cognised
and
respected by
the state
governments
as
legitimate pressure groups
to influence their
policies?
Not at all! How
do the state
governments
deal with street
demonstrations of workers
demanding
a
ban on retrenchment?
Or, campaigns
asking
for curbs on the violent activities
of the
Sangh parivar? They
either choose
to
pay
no heed to their
demands,
or unleash
the police
on them.
But, if it is a demonstration
by religious
bigots
- whether Hindus or
Muslims,
however violent
they might be,
and how-
ever monstrous their demands could be
-
these same state
governments (irrespec-
tive of their
political hues)
are all too
eager
to
placate
them. There is
definitely
a
method,
in what looks like madness in
their behaviour. In
Maharashtra,
it is an
amalgam
of Hindu
religious-regional
chauvinistic sentiments that have been
aroused,
and have come to
occupy
a
privileged space
in a
pre-electoral politi-
cal scenario where all the
political parties
are
competing
to
appropriate
it. To
pre-
empt
the Shiv Sena from
capitalising
on
the
issue,
the
Congress
chief minister
Shinde and the NCP leader Sharad Pawar
have rushed out with statements that in-
directly
endorse the vandalism
by stating
that 'sensitivities' of Maharashtrians
should not have been be hurt
by
the US
writer. But it is not the
foreign
writer who
is
being targeted.
Maharashtrian scholars
who were
reported
to have
helped
him
during
his research are now
being
branded
(one of them
having
been
literally
black-
ened in his
face)
in a witch-hunt that is
reminiscent of the medieval
ages.
In West
Bengal,
the
political
rhetoric
being
used
by
the
government
to defend
the ban on Taslima' s book is
different,
but
the
driving
forces behind it and the con-
sequences
are of the same nature. It was
the Muslim orthodox
clergy
which
prima-
rily
led the
campaign against her,
stating
that her book insulted Islam. There were
also a few
Bengali
writers who
objected
to the book because of false
allegations
of sexual
promiscuity against
some. But
it was the threats of the Islamic
clergy
which clinched the issue as evident from
the West
Bengal government's plea
that
the book would foment communal dis-
harmony
and could lead to riots. Yet
again,
a
campaign
led
by religious bigots pres-
surised a state
government
- and a Left
government
at that - to
impose
a ban on
a book that
exposed
the
oppression
inflic-
ted on a woman
by
a
patriarchal religious
establishment. Critics of the Left Front
suspect
that the ban is a
part
of its efforts
to
appease
the Muslim vote-bank on the
eve of the
coming
Lok Sabha elections -
a
suspicion
not wide of the mark.
But
political policies
of
appeasement
can never
satisfy
the fanatical
appetite
of
religious
and chauvinist fundamentalists.
In
Maharashtra,
the Maratha Vikas
Sangh
has not
only
come out with
public
state-
ments
warning
that its sister
organisation
Sambhaji Brigade
would resort to more
such
attacks,
but also wants all
'objection-
able documents' at the institute to be
destroyed.
In West
Bengal,
even after the
government's
ban on Taslima's
book,
several Muslim
groups
in Kolkata are now
demanding
that she should not be allowed
to enter the
city
for the release of her new
book at the Kolkata Book Fair. One Muslim
cleric is
reported
to have announced a
reward for
blackening
Taslima's face!
Fanaticism - whether of the Islamic or the
Sangh parivar
brand - cannot but take the
next
step
to barbarism.
Vandalism and violence are
being
en-
dowed with a
self-righteous religious
value
by politicians
of all hues. Whether it is
Vajpayee
of the BJP
exploiting
the violent
passions
of Hindus around the Ram-
Janmabhoomi issue while
pretending
to
calm
them,
or
Syed
Shahabuddin
(who
claims to be a liberal
Muslim) whipping
up
Muslims to a
frenzy
over Salman
Rushdie's Satanic Verses on the
plea
of
defending
Islam
-
both are
legitimising
a
sort of street
politics
that will end
up
in
the decimation of intellectual
questionings
31 8 Economic and Political
Weekly January 24 , 2004
This content downloaded from 209.6.3.166 on Thu, 12 Dec 2013 09:10:06 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
and academic discourses about our
past
history.
The
bogey
of
'hurting religious
sentiments or
popular
sensitivities' is
being
roused
every
now and then to
prevent any
honest research which could reveal facts
that could demolish old
myths
that had
been
sustaining
certain
oligarchies
in our
religious, political
and academic circles.
What is even more absurd is that - leave
alone the street
agitators
- their leaders
who are
supposedly
educated, do not even
bother to read the books which
they
want
to be banned.
Syed
Shahabuddin who was
a member of
parliament,
and at whose
instance the
government
banned Satanic
Verses in
1 988,
was
arrogant enough
to
declare in
public:
"..I have not read it
(Satanic Verses),
nor do I intend to. ....for
me the
synopsis,
the review, the
excerpts,
the
opinions
of those who had read it
...were
enough.."
(The Times
of India,
October
1 3, 1 988). Yet, the
agitation
which
he mounted on the basis of this limited
knowledge
of
his,
led to confrontation with
the
police
in Mumbai
leading
to the death
of innocent
participants
who were not even
aware of the contents of Satanic Verses.
Does Shahabuddin's conscience
prick
him
today
for the loss of innocent lives caused
by
his
political
misadventure?
Like Shahabuddin, the leaders of the
current
agitation
in Maharashtra
against
James William Laine's book are not known
to have read his book. The book is not a
biography
of
Shivaji,
but an historical
analysis
of the various narratives - folk-
lore and official -
surrounding
the
Maharashtrian hero.
According
to
Laine,
it is the
"shape
of the narrative that
gets
told,
historical or not". It is this
reality
of
the
past
- warts and all -- that is
being
denounced
by today's
Indian
politicians
who want to sustain their
popularity
on the
basis of
past myths.
The
problem
with Taslima Nasrin's book
is
slightly
different. It deals with the
present
which is as uncomfortable as the
past
for
our
politicians. Exposing
the
specious
arguments peddled
by the West
Bengal
government,
she
says:
"This is not the first
time that
my
book has been banned on the
plea
of
preventing
communal riots in West
Bengal;
in
Bangladesh
also
my
books
have been banned on the same
plea.
But
my books,
or
my
statements,
are not
responsible
for the recurrent riots in this
subcontinent. The reasons are different. I
am not a factor at all behind the
oppression
over the minorities in
Bangladesh,
or the
killings
of Muslims in
Gujarat,
or the
persecution
of Biharis in
Assam,
or the
attacks on
Christians,
or the Shia-Sunni
fights
in Pakistan.....
Although
an in-
significant
author,
I write in defence of
humanism...
My writings
have not led to
any
fearful events like communal riots..."
(Desh,
December
1 7, 2003). Apparently,
the actual
thing
that
got
the
goat
of the
Islamic fundamentalists in both
Bangladesh
and West
Bengal
was Taslima's
exposure
of the orthodox
patriarchal
norms that
allowed
persecution
of women in Muslim
society.
The Left Front
government's
acquiescence
in the
politics
of the Islamic
clergy
in West
Bengal, only goes
to show
that
stupidity
does not
belong
to a
single
party
or
regime.
But where will this
stupidity
lead us to?
Ray Bradbury
in his futuristic tale of a
society
where all
printed
material is banned,
chose the title Fahrenheit 4 5 1 , since that
is the
temperature
at which book
paper
catches fire and starts to bur. A fireman
employed
to burn books in this
society
tells
us how it all started with
people ripping
a
page
or a
paragraph
from books. A
day
came
when the books were
empty
and the minds
shut and the libraries closed forever. Are
we
moving
towards that
destiny?
03
Unified Licence in 'elecom
Moving
towards
Convergence
The recent announcements on
unified
licence and new
tariff
measures will in time
give
India one
of
the most
facilitative
telecom service
regimes
in the world.
T H CHOWDARY
B
y migrating
the basic and the
cellular
telephone companies
to a
unified licence
(though partially
as
yet)
Arun
Shourie,
the minister of infor-
mation
technology
and communications
has been able to
bring
down the friction
between the
telephone companies
and the
government
to a remarkable extent.
When,
as
promised by
the Telecommunication
Regulatory Authority
of India
(TRAI),
the
National
Long Distance,
International
Subscriber
Dialling
and internet service
are also
brought
into the unified
licence,
India will have one of the most facilitative
telecom service
regimes
in tune with the
convergence
of
technologies
for
telecoms,
computers,
internet and
broadcasting.
The
fiercely feuding
basic
telephone operators,
the
greatly agitated
GSM cellular service
providers
and Reliance Infocomm whose
limited
mobility
service
offering triggered
the feuds should all be
happy
with the
resolution of the contentions. Those who
are
financially
hurt are
reasonably
com-
pensated.
This resolution of the endless
legal
battles is as
great
as the BJP-led NDA
prime
minister
Vajpayee's
bold decision
in 1 999 to
migrate
the
private telephone
companies
from the
crippling upfront
fixed
licence fee
payment regime
to one of
revenue-sharing, ignoring
the foul and
baseless
charges
levelled
by
the
congenital
critics of
government.
We are about to
complete
1 0
years
of liberalisation of Indian
telecommunications
according
to a defined
policy
of the
government although,
the
policy
had to be amended in the
light
of
experience
and
technological compulsions
and most
importantly,
and the distortions
DoT as an
operator, licence-giver, regu-
lator and
policy-maker injected
into the
liberalisation
process.
The
country
is now
witnessing
a
phenomenal growth (about
22 million
per year)
in the number of
phones
and
deep
reductions of
up
to 80
per
cent in the
prices
for various
telephone
services.
Indeed,
the 7
per
cent tele-den-
sity target
that was set for 2005 has
already
been achieved. More
significantly,
most
new
telephones
taken
up
are mobile tele-
phones.
We are
adding
1 5 million of these
per year compared
to four to five million
fixed lines.
Many
of our cities are
already
having
more mobile
telephones
than fixed
telephones. Electricians, plumbers,
driv-
ers,
carpenters,
even
vegetable
vendors are
now
affording
mobile
phones
and
they
are
taking
to them because
they
are able to sell
their skills and wares better and more
extensively;
that
is,
the
telephone
is
adding
to their
productivity
and economic
gain.
There
are, however,
a few not
exactly
right
notions about how to make
telephones
available and affordable to more
people.
It is true that even in the most
developed
countries,
the telecom
regulator
enforces
Economic and Political
Weekly January 24 , 2004 31 9
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