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Apr 01, 2011 at 03:31pm IST

Ban on books: a question mark on democracy?

New Delhi: The latest biography on Mahatma Gandhi, 'Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India' is not even available here yet, but Gujarat and Maharashtra are banning it. The central government is deciding not to, after some consideration.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author and former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld has trashed media reports that have stirred up a controversy, also saying that a ban reflects poorly on India.

Author Joseph Lelyveld said, "The word bisexual never appears in the book. The word racist only appears once in a limited context relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi's whole set of attitude or history in South Africa."

Lelyveld said that in a county that calls itself a democracy, it is shameful to ban a book that no one has read including the people who are doing the banning. "They should at least make an effort to see the pages that they think offend them before they take such an extreme step," he said.

"It's a responsible book, a sensitive book, it's a book that is admiring of Gandhi and his struggle for social justice in India and it has been turned into as if it is some kind of sensational spot boiler, it's not," Lelyveld said.

But India has a history of banning books. When Patrick French wrote 'Liberty or Death', he also faced similar issues.

"When 'Liberty or Death' came out, there were calls to ban the book because I was supposedly too complimentary to Jinnah and not enough to Gandhi, but they didn't," said Patrick French.

"Gandhi was extremely open. If you think of the ideals of Nehru and Gandhi, it was to oppose censorship, they had to battle the sea customs act, by which the British tried to stop them from getting supposedly seditious material. If anything it's going against the spirit of what they believe," he said.

From Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses' to Maharashtra banning a book on Shivaji by James Laine, despite the Supreme Court ruling Last year, that upheld the right to freedom of speech. The Shiv Sena's Aditya Thackeray even got Rohinton Mistry's 'Such a Long Journey' removed from the Mumbai University syllabus for alleged derogatory statements. Ironically he's just been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for fiction.

The thrust of the argument may be that India needs to protect the honour of our national heroes. But is the legacy so shaky, that the government needs to stop people from knowing precisely what makes them human? But the question is, who gets to decide that and where does that infringe upon freedom of speech?

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