Who would have thought that Narendra Modi’s India would agree with Mario Vargas Llosa? The Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate said that literature is dangerous because it causes one to act in a rebellious manner, and also leaves you dissatisfied with the world you inhabit. That is the touchstone of the Indian state today to judge whether you are anti-national, seditious, or simply inconvenient. If the Delhi Police chargesheet against Sharjeel Imam mentions the books he read as part of his PhD research as inflammatory, then former JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid were also lampooned for reading too much Leftist literature.
Llosa’s comments were about the revolutionary quality inherent in literature. But in the past few years, it seems like the Narendra Modi government and its law enforcement agencies have taken the ‘literature is dangerous’ principle to heart.
If the Indian youth only read Chetan Bhagat’s mediocre pulp literature, the Indian state would never be rattled. But here is a list of books that should be thrown off your shelves if you don’t want to end up in the government’s bad books — be careful to tuck them away during your Zoom calls.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive. As investigation agencies confiscate more books as evidence, you can add what you like to this list.
For instance, two books on the shelves of Delhi University professor Hany Babu — From Varna to Jati: Political Economy of Caste in Indian Social Formation by Yalavarthi Naveen Babu, and Understanding Maoists: Notes of a Participant Observer from Andhra Pradesh by N. Venugopal — were confiscated when he was arrested this year by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Similarly, the police picked up every book that was red, Marxist or Dalit in appearance or subject matter when it raided English and Foreign Languages University professor K. Satyanarayan’s home.
This is the same government that relegated ‘laal salaam’ and the word ‘comrade’ into the anti-national lexicon.
1. Forms of Collective Violence, Riots, Pogroms and Genocide in Modern India by Paul Brass
Let’s start with the book mentioned in the Delhi Police chargesheet against Sharjeel Imam for sedition and unlawful activities. The investigation came to the conclusion that American political scientist Paul Brass’ book on forms of collective violence ended up “radicalising” Imam. “By reading only such literature and not researching alternative sources, the accused became highly radicalised and religious bigoted,” the chargesheet noted.
Brass is a Professor (Emeritus) of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle and has written extensively on South Asian politics and collective violence. More importantly, his books are a staple in most university political science curriculums. FYI, Delhi Police, students don’t set the syllabus.
According to the chargesheet, Imam read the book as part of his MPhil thesis titled ‘Exodus before Partition: The attack on Muslims of Bihar in 1946′. Of course, the logical conclusion is that a book on riots would be essential reading for someone doing their thesis on Partition riots.
An official description of the book notes that the collection of essays “focus on the various forms of collective violence that have occurred in India during the past six decades, which include riots, pogroms, and genocide.” But perhaps, the police took particular offence at this line — “It is also evident that the government and its agents do not always act to control violence, but often engage in or permit gratuitous acts of violence against particular groups under the cover of the imperative of restoring order, peace, and tranquility.”
But who knows what exactly was considered ‘dangerous’ about this book, we can only presume.
2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
It’s no secret that any mention of ‘Marx’, coupled with ‘Communist’, automatically signals danger. And when the word ‘manifesto’ is thrown into the mix, disaster is bound to strike.
When Assamese activist Akhil Gogoi was arrested on charges of sedition and booked under anti-terror laws in December last year, the NIA, in its chargesheet, noted that he possessed a copy of The Communist Manifesto. What’s more, it was translated into Assamese.
Another favourite of almost all political science curriculums, The Communist Manifesto is like the Bible of Left-leaning political movements, an indictment of modern capitalism.
The book offers some stark truthbombs such as, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Funnily enough, the fear of The Communist Manifesto is so widespread that a man in Kolkata ordered the book off Amazon, but received the Bhagavad Gita instead. Honest mistake? I think not.
3. War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists, Edited by Biswajit Roy
In 2019, a particular book on activist Vernon Gonsalves’ shelf — War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists — caught the attention of the Bombay High Court judge Sarang V. Kotwal. The judge asked Gonsalves why he owned “objectionable material” such as this particular anthology.
It consists of a series of essays written by prominent activists and lawyers regarding the Maoist issue plaguing West Bengal’s Junglemahal region, stretching over Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia and parts of West Midnapore districts. Contributors to this anthology include activist Gautam Navlakha (who was arrested in April this year), and scholar Anand Teltumbde (also arrested in April this year). Perhaps, it is clear after all why this book is decidedly not a favourite in current times.
According to journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj, “A book that has citizens voluntarily coming forward, offering to discuss, mediate and resolve a long-standing issue obviously threatens the state’s authority and is consigned to find itself in the panchnama.”
Gonsalves, an accused in the Elgar Parishad case, is still in jail.
4. Pretty much any book by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar)
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always disliked the 19th-century social reformer Periyar — no matter what Prime Minister Narendra Modi says. In March 2018, BJP leader H. Raja went so far as to say that all of Periyar’s statues should be dismantled in Tamil Nadu, which led to widespread protests. If there is anyone with two diametrically opposing views it’s the Periyar Dravidians (with their atheism and rejection of Hinduism) and the BJP.
He also rejected nationalism as a Brahmanical construct. Therefore, I’m pretty sure in the BJP’s eyes, he is the OG anti-national.
5. Why I Am Not A Hindu and Post-Hindu India by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
Author Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is no stranger to being disliked by the government. His books ‘Why I am not a Hindu’ and ‘Post-Hindu India’ were deemed too controversial to be included in the curriculum by a Delhi University committee in 2018.
In 2017, Telugu Desam Party MP T.G. Venkatesh issued a ‘fatwa’ against Ilaiah, seeking a ‘public hanging’ for calling ‘Vysyas’ a community of social smugglers in his book Post-Hindu India. Ilaiah also received death threats because of his book, which forced him into a self-imposed house arrest in October that year.
6. Three Hundred Ramayanas by A.K. Ramanujan
A fear of the potency of literature is not something only the Modi government has displayed. In 2011, Delhi University removed poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s controversial essay on the Ramayana from the syllabus. The essay titled ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations’ explored over 300 different versions of Ramayana, and was intensely criticised by Hindutva activists for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.
Book bans are now so passé. Just go after those who read the books, that’s easier. But as they say, ideas are like refugees. No border wall can deter them from traveling.
Maybe there is one thing the government and police should be reading — the Preamble to the Constitution.
Views are personal.