Ban — and Let Ideas Die
Banning is never a good idea. And yet there are people around you who will demand, any time something challenges their intellect or belief, that a ban be put in place. Now, Air Vice Marshal AK Khandker, a very reputed freedom fighter, has just come forth with a book that has set people's nerves on edge. One can understand that. But what one does not quite comprehend is why the book must be banned. A good number of individuals have loudly demanded that Khandker's book be proscribed. He has, they say, transgressed the boundaries of historical truth. Perhaps he has, but is banning the answer to the point he has raised?
Of all the voices that have been raised in these past few days about Khandker's infractions, if one might put it this way, only one has demonstrated the decency and civility which come in a refurbishing of intellectual debate. Finance Minister AMA Muhith has done the good thing of telling people that the only way of fighting the contents of a book is through writing another book and clarifying matters. Muhith's words are a sign of wisdom which comes with age. It is wisdom which everyone — and that includes politicians too — must learn from.
But, of course, not everyone can take to books easily. Rajiv Gandhi decreed a ban on Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. That act prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to leap many more miles ahead of the Indian leader. He decided that nothing less than death — and you can be sure of the excruciating pain associated with it — was good enough for the writer. The deed was thus done. All across the Islamic world fanatics took the cue: Muslims rose to denounce Rushdie and accuse him of apostasy. They asked for his head. That was a patent demonstration of intolerance. Where Rushdie should have been engaged in academic debate, there was only heated-up sentimentality that went into work.
DH Lawrence suffered over his path-breaking Lady Chatterley's Lover. Anyone who understands life understands the place of literature in life. In this particular instance, those who went after Lawrence simply failed to grasp the essence of literature. In Stalin-era Soviet Union, a number of writers were in perpetual repression, with their works remaining unpublished or under a cloud. That should not have been the case and the Kremlin ought to have reflected on the thought that someday or the other the world would change and those very writers would be read freely and lovingly. That reminds us of the torment the writer Samaresh Basu was subjected to in India over his eminently readable novel Projapoti. Conservatism was at its height with the censors in India; and Basu suffered immensely. And what do we have now? Simply put, there is hardly anything that we find disturbing about the work.
A ban leads to a cul-de-sac where ideas break instantly into pieces. It is a most opportune way of stopping a debate or preventing one from taking place. In olden-day Pakistan, the Yahya Khan regime naively thought that clamping a ban on the Awami League would keep the two wings of the country together. That did not, indeed could not happen. The result was only too predictable. And it came to pass. Good old Ayub Khan, to whom must go the glory of an army occupying its own country – a tradition that was to leave democratic politics gravely wounded in both Pakistan and Bangladesh – decided one day, in the putative infinity of his wisdom, that politicians were behind the decline of the state. And, presto! He decreed an absurdity called the Elective Bodies' Disqualification Ordinance, or EBDO, through which some of the most significant of politicians of Pakistan were banned from engaging in politics. For the subsequent ten years, Ayub presided over Pakistan's fortunes, until a day came when those very EBDOed politicians put him out to pasture.
In the era of racial segregation, African-Americans were banned from getting into whites-only restaurants and buses. In apartheid South Africa, blacks, treated almost like vermin, were strangers in their own country. Not until Nelson Mandela arrived, through centuries of suffering –in that metaphorical sense of the meaning — did these unfortunate people graduate to respectability. A ban in the end shames the one who imposes it. And for that reason alone Nazi Germany will forever carry its burden of guilt over the inhumane treatment it meted out to its Jews as also Jews elsewhere in Europe.
Charles de Gaulle was once asked if his government intended to take action against the outspoken Jean-Paul Sartre. The French leader's response remains a model of modern liberalism. 'You don't arrest Voltaire', he said. And left it at that. It was wisdom that did not touch, in early 1950s' America, Joe McCarthy and his fanatical band of anti-communists. McCarthy and his self-important vigilantes went looking for communists in the United States government. They left the reputations of perfectly good people wallowing in the mud. McCarthy, senator from Wisconsin, was to have his comeuppance. He died in misery, unmourned, condemned as the very personification of evil.
Ban newspapers. Ban journals. Ban movies. And you have a perfect recipe for a poisonous dish of medieval thought food.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.