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Kicking the book out of syllabus: blame it on Sonia

Don’t blame Kapil Sibal, even Pranab Mukherjee, for the great act of absolute censorship of the NCERT textbook, Indian Constitution at Work. They had only come close to agreeing to first drop the ‘offending’ cartoon, and then the chapter itself, and even render it cartoon-free. The honours for getting the textbook off the syllabus goes to Sonia Gandhi.

It was she, who, according a report in DNA, literally shouted at her colleagues from her perch on the front ranks of the treasury benches, “Not just the cartoon. No. The whole book”. It was duly complied with. Needless to say, for the government, her word is the law.

At one point, when the Congress colleague – right word? – Sanjay Nirupam did not take the cue before the Samajwadi Party MP, Shailendra Kumar pounced with that very demand in the zero hour, and it “annoyed” her. Mrs Gandhi’s voice, being hers, must have reached Sibal loud and clear, and lo and behold, the book is now kicked out of the syllabus.

Courtesy: Getty Images

She beckoned Jyotiraditya Scindia, and through him sent the word to Nirupam. And then came her “literally shouted” command just as Pawan Bansal was saying that the NCERT would be asked to drop the chapter where the cartoon featured. At one point, she was “annoyed”. The minute details in the newspaper are as graphic as a live telecast of the proceedings.

The newspaper’s narration is graphic, as vivid as it would be had it been seen on live television:

“’When Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Pawan Bansal intervened and said Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal had ordered the removal of the cartoon, Sonia literally shouted at him. ‘Not just the cartoon. No. The whole book,’ she said. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee said that the cartoon and portions of the text will be removed. This annoyed Sonia further. ‘The whole book,’ she said loudly.’”

In the past, after proscription of a book, the intelligentsia has been vocal but to no avail; they only had to argue against a firm fait acompli rendering the entire exercise of protesting at the misdeed of putting a barrier between a reader and an author. The unreasonableness of a ban simply because someone’s sensibility had been injured too has been patent.

This time, how major decisions are taken and how subservient leaders – an oxymoron, that – bend backward to accommodate the wish or command – pick what you would – was been in full public view. That except for those who saw the Lok Sabha TV live, others had no clue despite a battalion of media personnel in the press gallery. Only one newspaper focused on it and now we know. Imagine what happens matters are dealt with in offices and their backrooms.

Several books have been barred from being read, often by officials cooking up arguments favouring such bans or withdrawals from circulation. Some bans have been swiftly announced, the book under question not even being read, as it happened with Great Soul: Mahtma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, by Pulitzer prize winner Joseph Lelyveld. Narendra Modi moved a resolution in the legislature and it was forthwith proscribed.

Just as with the extant case of the ‘offending’ cartoon, several decisions have come in the past on the basis of a belief that the claimed hurt of sentiments was real and not a rhetorical expression of wily sectarian perspective. One can recall how Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned. We know how Shivaji: the Hindu King in Islamic India, by James Laine met with prompt proscription in Maharashtra, unread, just as Great Soul was; Maharashtra led and Gujarat followed.

Never before have legal brains been consulted except for the yes men of the legal departments of the governments, state or Centre. And more devastatingly, no government had ever thought it fit to consult renowned academics as to the appropriateness of forcing a book out of circulation. Politicians – not even officials – are then left to battle it out, reasonable arguments being foiled by simple claim: avoidance of a crisis, hurt to sentiments was important.

At least 17 books have been taken off the shelves across the country or in parts of it. Some have been banned in one or two states, though in some cases like Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India the courts came to rescue; its ban was dismissed by the Supreme Court was banned in Maharashtra but lifted by the Supreme Court. However, the publisher did not bring out further copies.

Way back in 1962, it was Nine Hours to Rama by Stanely Wolpert, a historian and an emeritus professor at the University of California; Satanic verses, by Salman Rushdie; The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh; Riddle of Hinduism authored by no less a person than B R Ambedkar himself have been banned.

Then came the turn of Aubrey Menen’s Ramayanan, James Laine’s Shivaji: The Hindu king in Islamic India; while some like Jaswant Singh’s work on India and Partition, for its references to Jinnah was banned in one state, Gujarat. Katherine Mayo’s Mother India had a run-in; Mahatma Gandhi had called it a “drain inspector’s report”. Many a book has been lost to the readers because the hue and cry was raised by the unread masses or the non-reading leaders succumbing to pressure.

All this happens because those in authority think they don’t even owe an explanation.