My right to read

Yesterday’s Hindu carried a byline ‘Publisher mum on threat to another Doniger book’ – this time the publisher is Alph and the book is ‘On Hinduism’.  And this morning, sure enough there is news of the withdrawal by Aleph. This morning’s HT also has a central page column titled “A bonfire to free speech’. In this article Sharma and Varadarajan make an appeal to Penguin to ‘go back to court, tear up the instrument of surrender it signed with the book pulpers, and declare that it is willing to fight for democracy in India.’ However, I seriously doubt their last premise that ‘it will have the support ….. the country’s writers, readers, publishers and lay public.’

Why so? Writers are a small minority and the readers too, are too few to really count. The quality of public discourse has gradually, but surely declined over these last few decades. This is due to a variety of factors, among which I feel that, the poor investment in education and the overall decline in educational standards and values is a major one. Of course, our rapid transition in the post-1990 era, to a consumer society has added to this. Today, the worth of education is ONLY measured by the remuneration that it fetches.

The publishers, represented by the two powerful ones Penguin and Aleph, have already  shown how willing they are to fight. And who is the lay public?? You and me – and if it is an AAP like effect that represents us, then they go by the simple rule of the majority, with little respect for the individual right of the citizen. Our established political groupings, use the ‘path of least resistance’ and view most issues in the light of ‘gathering versus antagonizing’ vote banks. This was what led to the ban on Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ and The Moor’s last sigh’ and many others. And in a non-book case, to Rajiv Gandhi’s 180 degree turn on the Shah Bano case.  So, can we really expect much from this lay public?

It seems to me that it is all about defining the concept of democracy – the majoritian view verus individual freedom. Our constitution assures us the latter, but oft times the governance seems to be by the former. The courts have been more balanced in their judgements, as highlighted in the above article But I was confused by the recent ruling in the case filed against Raj Thackeray for his hate speeches. The court were of the view that they could not curb his individual freedom of speech.

From what I understand, the ban on a book and speech, come under the same legal section of the IPC. If, Penguin had gone to court, the legal system would have probably have ruled in their favor. But, the fear of physical reprisal in the absence of Government’s commitment to maintain law and order, urges towards the path of least resistance.

But what of my right to read Doniger’s or any other book? I do not expect any Government that may come to power, assuring my right. In the current milieu, I fear that the voice of the ‘lay public’ on this issue may not be loud enough. And, this leaves me with sadness – for the lesser nation that we are becoming.


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