HOW can one ever justify the burning of books? And yet, books are burnt, increasingly so. These days books are also pulped because religious gurus don’t want them to reach the bookstores. Some have destroyed more books than they have read. Such people were found in Nazi Germany. South Asia is their current halt. Book burners include those who call themselves people of the book.
Anger is one reason, but there have been more bizarre expediencies to thwart published literature. When the king’s printer Robert Barker brought out a new edition of the King James Bible in 1631, he neglected three letters from the seventh commandment, producing the injunction “Thou shalt commit adultery”. Barker, we are told, was fined £300, and he spent the rest of his life in debtors’ prison, even while his name remained on imprints.
“I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing,” the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented. “But now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned.” Most copies of what became known as the “‘Wicked’, ‘Adulterous’ or ‘Sinners’’’ Bible were promptly burned, but a few survived to become collectors’ items, their value raised by Barker’s error.
Was the Bodleian Library sinful in featuring one such copy in an exhibition about the making of the particular Bible? If its surviving copies are treasured possibly more than the authentic Bible, it is only because people still believe that humour is at least as much a living force as religion. That’s an additional reason to preserve books: as evidence of how we are commanded to be is often at variance with how we choose to be.
Burning an influential book in a rightward hurtling society could be like destroying the evidence to a horrific crime.
As the wit said in a lovely verse ‘Kufr kaafir ko aziz, Sheikh ko Islam bhala/ Ashiqa’n aap bhaley, apna dil aaraam bhala’. (The heathen love their world of heresy, the believers rejoice in their faith/ The lovers are besotted with their love, as for me, my heart craves its lazy solitude.)
While the erroneous versions of the King James Bible were burnt we need to be grateful that some copies dodged the vandals’ hands. The misprinted book was the last thing to harm Christianity. Censorious pontiffs and their lynch mobs were more damaging. This is true of most religions.
Any vandalism Muslims can do, their Hindu cousins want to do better. We can of course mention the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s fabulous book on Hinduism as one of many examples of how Hindutva wants innately laidback Indians to become actively intolerant. It was a sympathetic book on Hinduism they pulped because they were ignorant.
But let us turn our gaze on the bunch of Marxist students, surprisingly, who joined the destruction of copies of the ancient Manusmriti at JNU recently. It seems a few former members of a Hindutva students’ group decided to publicly set fire to the copies. The rebels were reportedly Dalit and backward caste students. Their apparent idea was to publicly denounce the Brahminical book’s contents. What were the Marxists trying to do?
When Bhim Rao Ambedkar burnt the misogynistic and brazenly racist Manusmriti he did so to make a point after studying it. He translated its revolting contents scrupulously and shared it in lurid detail with the world as evidence of his critique of Brahminism. This is the text and this is why we should reject it, was his approach though even in Ambedkar’s case the burning of the ancient treatise may have been ill advised.
Reading it aloud to unlettered Indians and keeping its copies in libraries would have better served Ambedkar’s cause. Indian railway stations routinely display cheap editions of Mein Kampf. Instead of destroying it, the book should be mandatory reading to know the mind of a most charismatic fascist.
It didn’t make sense, therefore, to burn Manusmriti, and least by communist students who have fought hard against this kind of mindless assault on literature. Nor would that help the Dalit cause.
What could help us understand the Dalit perspective better? They might have held a seminar to discuss the bad book, while not forgetting that it is a popular book. Many Indians swear by its Brahminical prescriptions even today. That’s exactly what the world needs to know. Burning a particularly influential book in a rightward hurtling society could be like destroying the evidence to a horrific crime.
The state-sponsored attacks on liberal campuses is, among other factors, inspired by Manusmriti, a Brahminical order that drives Hindutva. It needs to be read to be exposed for you can’t expose a book with a fistful of ashes. You need to cite references.
There was a muffled outcry from the liberal corner when the publishers pulped Doniger’s book. Fascist hordes ransacked a Delhi University class where history students were riveted to research on different versions of the Ramayana legend that Indians traditionally subscribed to against the solitary one being imposed by Hindutva.
The hoodlums wanted to tear up A.K. Ramanujan’s A Hundred Ramayanas as they felt threatened by it. How does Manusmriti threaten anyone? It only makes one more resolute to challenge its women-hating Dalit-baiting assertions.
Now a yoga guru with a communal slant has proposed to put the Vedas on educational curricula. Instead of protesting predictably, academics and students might consider strongly supporting the idea.
Will the Vedas endorse the Indian prime minister’s belief that Lord Ganesh got his elephant’s head from a delicate surgery in ancient India? If the ancient scriptures don’t give joy, we could look for other sources. May we consult Greek mythology too since similar head transplants seem to have occurred among their heroes as well? What about Egyptian gods, they too had unusual transplants? We must in any case publish the outcome of the findings, all for the greater glory of a peerless heritage.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2016