Dialectics of Literary Censorship in India

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Recent times have witnessed increased physical and verbal assaults on the Indian writers, thereby placing greater restrictions on publications and creative thoughts. At such a juncture, it becomes worthwhile to explore the dictates of censorship in certain theoretical as well as non-theoretical frames of reference. Such efforts would assist in preserving the integrity of literature and creative freedom of the writers in a democracy through a more nuanced understanding of censorship.

HYPOTHESIS/RESEARCH

There has been a spurious inclination in the normative impression of censorship towards its physical manifestations where it is customarily fathomed in terms of political power dynamics. Gone are the days when the right-wing governments were conveniently accused of suppression of free speech. In the current times, the embargo can be attributed to governments/authorities across the political spectrum. In India, books have been censored during the reigns of governments with leanings towards the right, center or left, but what becomes interesting is the nature of content that presents such writings as a threat to the system. Even the left-leaning government in Kerala that is assumed to be liberal and progressive, initiated an investigation against Malayalam translations of the works by Gopal Godse, which included a play on Nathuram Godse, the assassinator of Mahatma Gandhi, in 1998. Therefore, it appears that viewing censorship through political spectacles is shortsighted, if not fallacious.

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Thus, there is a pressing need to understand censorship as a multi-stakeholder project which is accomplished through a well knot nexus between “unknown” participants rather than a top down decree from an isolated command center. The need of the hour is a comprehensive understanding that acknowledges the heterogeneous experiences around censorship, as well as ruminates the socio-cultural particularity of authority, circumstances and the writer. This necessitates a theoretical rigor to comprehend censorship in its entirety apart from its materialistic manifestations.

The ‘new censorship’ debates divulge that it is unfeasible to blend only politics with censorship for the reason that it is much more than just plain politics. The ‘new censorship’ debates has centered around, but not limited to, the theories of scholars like Judith Butler, Sue Curry Jansen, Annette Kuhn, Richard Burt and Michael Holquist. Sue Curry Jansen in Censorship: The Knot that Binds Knowledge and Power (1991) proposes that the tacit unexpressed structures should be the subject of analysis instead of the apparent socio-cultural power mechanisms, which has been the case in the past. The approaches of these scholars are lopsided, if not unsound. They do bring fresh insights on censorship by expanding its boundaries beyond the regulative aspect to include productive capacity of censorship. However, they fall victims to establishing a hierarchy between their theoretical complex postulations and the orthodox ideas of censorship.

It is equally important to draw a link between these theoretical preoccupations and their actual applicability on literary texts. Most of these critics fail to render any application-based model for their own theories; the outcome of this is a distrust of their definition of censorship that is as simple as they want it to appear. The intended research would analyze the theoretical underpinnings of censorship and put to litmus test the applicability of these Western studies in Indian setting. In the process, it would modify or repudiate the principles/theories of censorship for a more authentic hypothesis relevant for Indian censorship of literature by conspicuous focus on local socio-cultural and political milieu. Even so, it would not attempt to generalize and prescribe an understanding which is Pan-India considering the diverse socio-cultural and literary traditions of the nation. It would only suggest an understanding that is closer to the Indian sensibilities.

Apart from Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubagan or One Part Woman (2010) and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories (2015), the research would borrow analysis from the infamous ‘Rushdie Affair’ or the banning of Rushdie’ The Satanic Verses (1989) -reasons for the ban, multi dimensional effects on the reader and the writer, theoretical and pragmatic justifications that surfaced. By making use of the postulates of ‘new censorship’, the research would delve upon to scrutinize the already existing theories. The research intends to move beyond the simplistic binaries of for/against in the normative censorship dialectics by problematizing the construct of censorship.

To begin with, in simplistic and crude words, censorship can be understood as an individual minding another’s business. For instance, if a person finds Rushdie’ The Satanic Verses (1989) objectionable, the remedy, again simplistically, would be to avoid the same. Censorship of literature is akin to social engineering involving “planning” of literature as well as the creative thoughts of writers and readers’ expectations. Eventuate of this exercise is a literature that is a concoction of compromise and complicity, incorporating not just the censors and writers but all those who form the system. This tickles the brain with the metaphysical concerns of purpose of art, the responsibility of an artist towards the society, society’s responsibility towards an artist and literature’s potential of hurting society-all within the ambit of censorship.

Moreover, the conception of censorship is fundamentally based on three assumptions. First, literature, is capable of radically affecting the belief systems and point of views of the readers. Thinking about it in terms of plain yes/no would invite the charge of oversimplication. Second, the work of literature has a universal effect on all the readers and the corresponding response towards the work would be homogenous. Such an assumption is fallacious given the sundry responses that literature is capable of evoking from the readers depending on their location with a particular ‘system’. Third, reading of literature can be context autonomous and unattached to the socio-historical and cultural contexts of the work as well as the reader. A preliminary reading of Hansda’ The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories (2015) highlights that the stories will be interpreted differently by a Santhali and a non-Santhali, since the former would be better capable of appreciating (or/and getting offended) the nitty-gritties of the cultural milieu of the stories.

The persistent defense of censorship of its imperative role in maintaining the morality and public order is essentially a pre-Enlightenment notion where the individual was secondary to the State. In a postmodern and post-structural world, censorship becomes redundant since novels become a “realm where moral judgment is suspended”, to quote Milan Kundera from Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (1993). This suspension of morality is the morality of novels. Therefore literature can never harmonize to the diktats and structures of the human constructs of religion, State and so on. Therefore, it would be an interesting study to see if, at all, literature can be censored because all attempts of censoring fall apart since it is an outlier in the conventional set up of human made ‘structures’.

Censorship assimilates multifarious repressive measures ranging from governmental to non-governmental interference, post-publication banning, withdrawal of an already published work by means of coercive manoeuvres or putting a public display of aggression against the work. It foregrounds the power nexus between knowledge and authority, as popularly discussed in the Foucauldian power-knowledge liaison, resulting in the questions like who decides what to censor, for whom to censor and for how long. Nevertheless, the readers as well as the critics append a literary perspective to the interpretation and reception of the censored work. In this light, the works would be analyzed in terms of why some texts are censored, what makes them ‘worthy’ of being censored, what is the nature of content of the censored texts and what makes certain texts threat to the State.

Besides, censorship has been operating itself in a mutated form in the democratic polities. The democratic state moves one step forward by ‘creating’ a demand for censorship among the community and groups that influence through their opinions, simultaneously, begetting the notion that censorship is indispensable for their survival- social, political, moral and cultural. Such sections are unfailingly kept at unease about the transforming esthetic, moral, sexual and cultural norms. Hence, it is crucial to understand that there is an active possibility of the readers that may be hand in glove with the upkeep of censoring authorities, even when they may apparently oppose censorship.

Such a partnership adds to the recently evolving form of silencing: Killing. G.B. Shaw’s pronouncement that “assassination is the extreme form of censorship,” assumes greater relevance in the recent Indian context that has witnessed killings of several writers, journalists and activists like Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dhabolkar and M.M. Kalburgi who were murdered for their beliefs and ideas that were propagated through their writings.

Therefore, the materialistic basis of censorship accentuates a paradox in its scheme of things. While wielding power it exposes its inherent weakness by admitting its deep-seated fright of power of speech, enquiry and critique. Thus, censorship becomes open acknowledgement of trepidation that finds resonance in the Butler’s “performative contradiction”. She writes that censors are trapped in an equivocal situation, where they, carry the censored material within its own ambit. The research would contemplate on what would have happened had Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1989) not banned in India. How could it enervate the censorious institutions?

Also, the inevitable dyadic structure of censored text, concurrence of the palpable and the veiled meaning, calls attention to the providential interpretation. Censorship, thus, has to be contextualized and uneasiness between text and context needs to be embraced. While analyzing the above concerns/questions, the research would see the position of free speech. It would attempt to study the ethics of dissent, opinion and representation by scrutinizing censorious institutions. Analyzing this pragmatic aspect of censorship would entail picking up from Foucault’s discourse analysis, the aftermath of which saw the mollification of the Manichean split of regulation and free speech. Within the poststructuralist framework it ensued a deterministic role in regulating speech.

In addition to being victimized by the thought police, the writers grapple with critics’ crackdown and the asperities of self-censorship. After the public burning of his book One Part Woman (2010) and threats to his life, Perumal Murugan said, “A censor is seated inside me now. He is testing every word that is born within me.” This leads one to the theoretical plane, where the research would attempt to do away with the facile inference of self-censorship as one of the repercussions of censorship. By exploring the subliminal space, the research proposes that censorship arrests and rouses the creative thoughts. The writers anticipating a ban tend to adopt stylistic techniques, like myths and folklore, to circumvent censorship. The primary literary texts of the research would be used to make a point that censorship can be as much productive in certain cases as it is restrictive. One can find self-censorship conflated with stylistic innovations in the fact that the first novel published by Perumal after One Part Woman (2010) controversy was a biography of a goat entitled Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat (2017).

Furthermore, Annette Kuhn in Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925 says that censored movies must be analysed/watched in “terms of their absences, of what has been actively denied expression in them”. Extrapolating the line of thought in literature, the comment essentially destabilizes the perception that censorship is always repressive. By primarily concentrating on that which it negates, censorship presents itself as litotic, a radical version of meiosis with political horns. Thus, censorship is marked by a fatal disjunction: the forbiddance of divorcing what is banned from what is sanctioned also coalesces them. Thereby, the paradoxicality of censorship can be envisioned as capriciousness.

Capriciousness earmarks the vacuity that censors most despise, the play of meanings they most diligently attempt to desist. The upshot of blatant censorship is an augmented awareness of prohibited material. However, a consequent fallout can be a complicit audience that is cognizant of dyadic structure of the text censored. For such readers, the text becomes a concurrent reality of manifest and quenched meanings resulting in a reception hitherto unthought-of: they get acclimatized to finding for the hidden connotations crouched between the lines. Therefore, censorship, in an archaeological praxis, becomes a reading of ‘betweenness’ of lines. Burt’s “deconstructive” definition of censorship also treads on the same path. The research would dig deeper the paradox of censorship and its conception within the mainstream discourse. It would investigate the manner in which the censored works wield power over the censors through the hidden meanings, meanings that always escape the comprehension of the censors.

In addition, censorship also acts as a conduit of power employed to attend to self-interest and a testimonial of practical competence. Subsequently, it lends itself well to the political domain, where language, and by corollary, literature, becomes a battleground for the capture of symbolic power. In Language and Symbolic Power (1991), Pierre Bourdieu justifies the organic role of censorship calling it a structural necessity within the overarching integral role of language. Stanley Fish in There Is No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too (1994), says that there is no absolute freedom of speech, and, posits that the congruity of every statement is tightly situated within a specific “interpretative community” at the receiving end. Allowing certain play of possibilities and disallowing certain others ‘construct’ the meaning within a specific context. This makes censorship an ever-present aspect of language system.

If the two writers were to be believed, it would appear that the exercise of censorship dialectics in terms of for/against becomes sterile for the reason of appropriation of freedom that technically never fully exists. Censorship does. Consequently, one can only consider the degree of its effects rather than contending on its existence altogether. However, it would be equally sophistic to accept the blanket presence of censorship in all contexts without qualifiers as propounded by the two writers.

The research intends to check the validity of certain theoretical assumptions of censorship within the Indian context through the textual analysis of works, which were/are banned in India. These assumptions need to be re-evaluated, extrapolated and critiqued during the course of the research to adjudge whether it is possible to do away with censorship or the leviathan of censorship is too formidable to eschew.

PRIMARY SOURCES

  1. Murugan, Perumal. One Part Woman. New Delhi, Penguin Editions, 2010.
  2. Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, N.Y. : Viking Penguin Inc., 1989.
  3. Shekhar, Hansda Sowvendra. The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited, 2011.
  4. Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  5. Burt, Richard. The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism and the Public Sphere. Minneapolis, London: U of Minnesota P, 1994.
  6. Burt, Richard. '(Un)Censoring in Detail: The Fetish of Censorship in the Early Modern Past and the Postmodern Present.' Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1998.
  7. Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Abingdon: Routledge Press, 1997.
  8. Cline, Victor B. Where Do You Draw the Line?: An Exploration Into Media Violence, Pornography and Censorship. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1974.
  9. Davis, James E. Dealing with Censorship. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
  10. Ernest, Morris L. and Alan U. Schwartz. Censorship: The Search for the Obscene. New York: Macmillan, 1964.
  11. Fish, Stanley. There Is No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994.
  12. Holquist, Michael. 'Corrupt Originals: The Paradox of Censorship.' PMLA 109.1 (1994).
  13. Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
  14. Jansen, Sue Curry. Censorship: The Knot That Binds Power and Knowledge. New York, Oxford: OUP, 1991.
  15. Khosla, G. D. Pornography and Censorship in India. New Delhi: Indian Book Company, 1976.
  16. Kuhn, Annette. Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925. London, New York: Routledge, 1988.
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Dialectics of Literary Censorship in India. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/dialectics-of-literary-censorship-in-india/
“Dialectics of Literary Censorship in India.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/dialectics-of-literary-censorship-in-india/
Dialectics of Literary Censorship in India. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/dialectics-of-literary-censorship-in-india/> [Accessed 14 Jul. 2024].
Dialectics of Literary Censorship in India [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 Jul 14]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/dialectics-of-literary-censorship-in-india/
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