//On Books, Moral Policing,

On Books, Moral Policing,

Nalini Taneja, People's Democracy, Vol. XXX, No. 44

October 29, 2006


WE are witnessing today a pragmatic collaboration of forces that defend ‘moral’ policing in the name of protecting ‘Indian’ culture, justify trampling on democratic rights of citizens on grounds of suppressing ‘naxalism’ in thought and deed, and prevent circulation of books and performances because they ‘hurt sentiments’.

There is a need to unravel this pragmatic collaboration, and see it for what it is: how it serves ruling class interests in general and the politics of the two major ruling class parties in particular.

‘Moral’ policing, attacks on ‘undesirable’ books, performances, and persons as well, is part of this collaboration and is aimed directly at those who represent popular interest, particularly the working class and the peasantry. The automatic branding of all kinds of people engaged in democratic activism as naxalites, and by definition criminals, is also part of the counter activism of the Indian state and its shift in the ‘right’ direction to accommodate the pro-imperialistic policies and alignments, anti-people measures, and the politics of neo-liberalism. The attacks on minority rights and secular expression are part and parcel of this shift to the Right.


The recent incidents in Chandrapur involving arbitrary confiscation of books from the Daanish Books stall at the Chandrapur Book Fair and the subsequent illegal detention, harassment and interrogation of Ms Sunita Kumari by the Chandrapur police must be looked at in this context.

Ms Sunita Kumari is owner of Daanish Books, a reputable publishing house of progressive literature and a member of the Independent Publishers Group (IPG). The bookstall was at Deekshabhoomi, as part of the book fair being held to commemorate the golden jubilee of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.

On October 15, a contingent of 70 armed policemen surrounded the Daanish stall for over three hours; made a list of some 200 books which they found ‘objectionable’ and ‘anti-national’; but after intervention of superintendent of police, Mr Ravindra Kadam, seized 41 titles. Later, after registering an offence under the dreaded Illegal Activities Prevention Act against her, Sunita Kumari was questioned for over 14 hours by the Chandrapur police. Along with her, Vijay Vairagade, a local social activist, and his 17-year-old son were also questioned. Sunita was allowed to go after her 3-day ordeal on the condition that she will have to present herself as and when police wanted her. This was only after protests at the local as well as national and international level, and a final intervention by Brinda Karat, who phoned the home secretary of Maharashtra and demanded immediate stop to her harassment.


It may be noted that none of the books seized by the police — among them those written by Clara Zetkin, Bhagat Singh, Che Guevara, Baburam Bhattarai, Li Onesto, Anand Swarup Varma, Vaskar Nandy, Jai Prakash Narayan—is banned or declared offensive by any state agency. They are books which are publicly available everywhere, and which civil society in any country with secular ideals should justly be proud of.

As an e-mail circulated by Daanish Books elaborates: "The books seized by the police for containing dangerous , anti state material include books like Marathi translation of the Thoughts of Bhagat Singh, Ramdeen Ka Sapna by B D Sharma, Jati Vyavastha: Bhartiya Kranti Ki Khasiyat by Vaskar Nandy, Monarchy Vs Democracy by Baburam Bhattarai, Nepali Samargaatha: Maowadi Janyuddha ka Aankhon Dekha Vivaran (the Hindi edition of eminent American Journalist Li Onesto’s celebrated book Dispatches from the People’s War in Nepal, translated by Anand Swarup Varma), Daliton par Badhati Jyadatiya aur Unka Krantikari Jawab, Chhapamar Yudhha by Che Guevara and books on Marxism-Leninism and people’s struggles." In short, these are books critical of monarchy and the caste system, those promoting revolutionary thought and action, and even those of Bhagat Singh. Needless to say, many of these books would be available at many other stalls as well.

The police raid clearly smacks of arbitrariness, barbarism and is a denial of the right to free speech and the propagation of ideas. In no democratic country can the police usurp the right to decide what will be read or published by people, and the fact that the police of Chandrapur has got away with it without any censure from the political leadership in the state of Maharashtra or from the officialdom is a cause for major worry. The incident obviously raises pertinent questions about our rights vis a vis the State, as an individual citizen of a ‘free country’, as publishers and finally as readers.

It also causes huge worry on account of the manner in which a secular activist could be whisked away, illegally confined and interrogated simply by being branded a ‘naxalite’, as if after that the State did not require to give any explanation or be accountable to the individual concerned or be obliged to give information under the RTI Act; that all this could be done without registering a case or FIR, in POTA like fashion.


Similarly, the performance of a Hindi play, ‘Cotton 56, Polyester 84’, dealing with the history of Mumbai mills was forcibly stopped in Nagpur and the theatre group harassed. The play was stopped by the police on technical grounds citing “improper licensing” as the reason. Ramu Ramanathan, the playwright, told at a press conference that the troupe was followed by two armoured police vehicles and plainclothes policemen who also tore down posters announcing the play in the city. The Nagpur police commissioner did not meet the theatre group. The theatre group has also clarified that the play has been cleared by the censors and has already been performed over 30 times in Maharashtra and even in Bangalore. Clearly the contents of the play have not been found palatable by the Indian state, although its agencies have not been able to find anything in it to be able to formally ban it. The actors included famous names from the stage, Nagesh Bhonsale and Charusheela Sable.

Vigilantism by the right wing groups is common in BJP ruled states and those where they have a strong presence: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa. In all these states tacit or open support is being provided to them by the state agencies.


In Maharashtra the Shiv Sena has a clear history of suppressing democratic and secular expressions, including the burning of books, forcing a ban on books of history, especially those critical of Shivaji, and ransacking of research libraries on grounds that their staff has collaborated with scholars who project “anti-India” or anti-Maharashtra views. As in Gujarat, the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra have not been able to demarcate themselves from the BJP and the Shiv Sena, and many of the police actions abetting or actively supporting right wing Hindutva groups have taken place during times when there has been a Congress-NCP government in power in the state. When they have not been in power its leaders have not dared to question or oppose Shiv Sena actions or the Hindutva reading of Indian or for that matter Maharashtrian culture. They have been complicit in creating and maintaining a hegemony for the forces of Hindutva, in creating adverse conditions for Muslims, in the unequal trajectories of the judicial inquiries into Bombay blasts and the Bombay riots against Muslims, in ensuring that while the Bombay blasts accused are dealt with firmly, those found guilty in
the Bombay riots against Muslims go scot free.
While the Maharashtra police ignore all leads pointing to violence on the part of Hindutva forces, it is more than usually active in suppressing secular-democratic expression by trade unionists, writers, theatre persons, writers and artists, including our most well known artist, M F Hussain. There is never an apology or sense of accountability on the part of the bourgeois political parties or the officialdom presided over by them, leave alone protection against harassment.


Characterising these disruptive actions as ‘moral policing’ somehow gives the impression that all this is simply a matter of culture, linked with long-term educational efforts and to be settled through the battle in the realm of ideas alone. It also gives the impression that our society is becoming revivalist and conservative, and that given this thrust towards conservatism, for whatever reasons, such incidents involving ‘some sections’ of people are bound to take place.

Such a valuation ignores the links of such ‘backwardness’ with a modernity that is intrinsic to right wing politics and economic projects, and shies from naming and blaming the networks and organisations that perpetrate violence and endanger democracy, minority rights and the livelihood of those they choose.

All this not only spells danger to the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to read, write, publish and perform, but is a serious curtailment of the right to work for a better society. It involves infringement of the right to propagate ideas and to organise, and it curtails political activity and participation in the workings of democracy. There is a need, therefore, to also be alert to the dismissal of such denial of political rights as simply the work of fringe elements. There is a need to be aware that these ‘fringe’ elements are quite mainstream today, and have the might of the state behind them. The UPA government at the centre has, on its part, been unable to guarantee democracy or even impartiality; there are too many ruling class threads that bind it to the politics of the BJP and its Parivar. The centre has not collapsed in India; it has simply shifted Right.