One of my favourite quotes on religion is from a 1995 British television miniseries Oliver's Travels. It comes from the title character's wisdom as an ousted comparative religion professor: "Most of the world's religions say, 'Thou shalt not kill'. Most of the world's religions will kill you to prove it."
Similarly many of the world's religions, and some people who claim to be against all religions, have tried to ban books at one point or another. "Blasphemous" is a favoured word for those vowing to protect faith and dogma, or the power afforded them by that faith and dogma.
Delhi University's Academic Council's withdrawal of AK Ramanujan's essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas" from the history syllabus earlier this month is the latest in a long line of objections to words. Mumbai University earlier banned "Such a Long Journey", by Rohinton Mistry, after violence was threatened.
In the United States, dozens of books have been challenged and banned in school districts in the past year, including such best sellers as "Water for Elephants", "Snow Falling on Cedars", "Brave New World" and even "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl". Earlier this year, a new edition of the Mark Twain classic "Huckleberry Finn" was printed without 200 "hurtful epithets" such as the "n-word", applied as a derogatory term to African Americans at the time it was written.
The fear of causing offence is powerful, particularly when groups can be incited to turn up in protest or violence through social media.
But Banning anything for hate speech or even "blasphemy" has yet to ever remove the underlying beliefs that spawned them. Ignorance might be bliss but it doesn't make anything disappear, and certainly not in a university setting, supposedly founded on the spirit of enquiry. Education requires free access to questions, however
uncomfortable and difficult they may be. If a child or even an adult is not allowed to ask a question, then they cannot learn. They can be indoctrinated, and if that's what we want, then we should close universities and merely plug the answers we want into the brains of those around us.
Except that we live in the 21st century. It's increasingly harder to indoctrinate anyone because the web allows you to fiercely believe your own world view to the exclusion of all others.
The idea of banning a book in 2011 is, quite frankly, tacky. If AK Ramanujan's essay was in pdf format, you could just email it to everyone with an account across India in one swoop, or better yet tweet it to the world beyond India so everyone else can appreciate what the debate is about.
And banning a book can now bring so much attention via the Internet, that it merely exposes more people to the text you professed to be so terrified of. I now want to read both "Three Hundred Ramayanas" and the Ramayana. So maybe some small groups have won in Dehli and Mumbai, but they've lost the rest of the globe.
A simple Google search brings up this Ramayana quote:
"To be under the control of another is to be condemned; it is the worst thing that can befall a person."
"Love and affection is possible only when a person is being seen and is not out of sight in a far away place."
Love is not possible when the Taliban destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan, when Switzerland bans minarets or when a Christian burns the Koran in Florida.
And understanding is impossible when you push everything you don't like "out of sight in a far away place". So banning books from universities is not just pointless in the digital age, it is against the very precepts of faith some profess to defend.