Wednesday 20 October 2010

Banning books in Bombay

Spending cuts will dominate everything in British politics today. In other news, one of my favourite authors, Rohinton Mistry, has hit the headlines, though in inauspicious circumstances.

His novel 'Such a Long Journey', published 21 years ago, has been removed from the Mumbai University syllabus. (It's a good novel - which was shortlisted for the Booker - though I think the best starting point for anybody new to Mistry is his later magisterial 'A Fine Balance').

This follows a complaint by the militant far right Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena. They object to the novel's not always laudatory references to their controversial thuggish Muslim-bashing and Hitler-admiring founder Bal Thackeray, whose vocal contribution to India's democracy was symbolised and celebrated in his ban from contesting or voting in elections for six years in 1999. (Thackeray is more thoroughly satirised in Rushdie's The Moors Last Sigh).

The anti-book campaign appears to be an attempt to launch a political career for Thackeray's 20 year old grandson, Aditya Thackeray, an undergraduate at the university who was recently appointed head of the youth wing of Shiv Sena. He has not - of course - read the book (having not quite been born when it was published) though he has seen a few paragraphs of it (and is protesting by, naturally, burning copies in protest) thus establishing himself as a rising star to watch in the field of divisive political stupidity.

Ludicrously, the university vice-chancellor has removed the book as an option from the English course syllabus. Mumbai University Vice Chancellor Rajan Welukar's fitness for his office following this total failure to defend academic freedom is very much in question.

As Mistry says - in his videoed statement.

“The Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar script of threats and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organisation’s founding in 1966,” the author said. “More bobbing, weaving, and slippery behaviour is no doubt in the offing. But one thing remains: a political party demanded an immediate change in syllabus, and Mumbai University [made] the book disappear the very next day.”

And I was struck that the Chief Minister of Maharastra, Ashok Chavan, also opportunistically attacked the book as "highly abusive and objectionable”, backing the university's decision.

That is rather disgraceful. Chavan is a member of the governing Congress party - the party of Nehru no less - demonstrating that such extremist demands are now heeded and supported by the governing parties of the political centre. (He had not, of course, read the book but appears to have been shown a paragraph or two. Let's hope nobody tells him that Congress icon Indira Gandhi and he State of Emergency is treated somewhat roughly in Mistry's A Fine Balance).

A national Congress party spokesman could at least see the central point, in (rather gently) distancing the party from the Chief Minister's view.

"The Shiv Sena and the Congress can never be on the same side of a political debate because our idea of India differs very radically from theirs,

India's press has been pretty scathing about the ban, and literary and freedom of expression groups are protesting it. But the episode shows how often the liberal freedoms and multi-faith tolerance of the country's secular constitution are challenged by the populist Hindu right.

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