Banning books is draconian; govt may use its powers to clamp down but it will be thwarted by technology

Supreme Court dismissed a petition on Wednesday seeking a ban on the publication of a Malayalam novel Meesha, on the grounds that it infringed on the author’s freedom of speech.

 Banning books is draconian; govt may use its powers to clamp down but it will be thwarted by technology

Representational image. Agency

It's a welcome ruling upholding the democratic spirit of the nation. Books are banned but there are established procedures so that they can be banned only when there is justifiable cause to do so.

Section 95 and 96 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 provide for the “forfeiture” of books and other literary materials. Materials that can be prohibited under this provision are seditious materials, materials that promote class and religious enmity, those that are against national integration, obscene books and objects and those that maliciously insult the religious beliefs of a class. Once the government makes an order under this section, the books and materials are confiscated. Section 96 provides an appeal against such an order and this appeal lies before a division bench of the concerned high court. This is the strictest way a book can be banned in India.

The Central government may ban a book in part by using its powers under the Customs Act to prohibit the import of such books. This power is wide in nature as the import of goods is a sovereign prerogative. A classic case of a book being banned this way is the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. In such a case though, the publication of the book within India is not prohibited but only the import of the book. This provision is normally used in relation to books published elsewhere.

Any civil court may order that a book be banned or withdrawn from circulation on the motion of a party if the party is able to establish that the book either infringes copyright or is defamatory in nature. This is done by way of an injunctive order. The order can be issued against publishers of the book who may also be ordered to recall and pulp the books. Any person can apply for such an order if they can prove that they have been defamed by the book or if they can establish that the book infringes on their intellectual property.

However, it gets tricky in the age of social media. A book that is no longer in print can be freely available on the internet and can also be shared alike.

The government can use other mechanisms to ban content on the internet as well. It can issue take down notices to websites hosting the book and/or block access to those sites. However, given the nature of the internet and how it functions, it is impossible to effectively ban any content on it.

Perhaps because the internet is a truly democratic platform that allows for the free exchange of ideas. The banning of books is a draconian measure that technology has found a way to overtake. Banning a book is a self-defeating cause. The minute a book is banned it gains a notoriety that no amount of publicity will be able to give it. Further there is no way currently to police the internet, where people can literally tweet an entire book out to get around the ban. Unless one turns into an effective police state like China, banning books is an exercise in futility.

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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2018 17:57:49 IST