Reading in the Light of Bonfires

A memorable passage in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth describes a group of teenagers on their way to Bradford to participate in a book-burning. The time is the late eighties: the book is not named nor is its author, but it is clearly Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. All is proceeding well, until suddenly someone asks if anyone has actually read the book:

‘So … you ain’t read it?’ asked Ranil nervously.
‘Look: you best believe I ain’t buying that shit, man. No way, star.’
‘Me neither,’ said Hifan.
‘True star’, said Rajik.
‘Fucking nastiness,’ said Ranil.
‘Twelve ninety-five, you know,’ said Dipesh.
‘Besides, said Millat, with a tone of finality despite his high rising terminals, ‘you don’t have to read shit to know that it’s blasphemous, you get me?’ (Smith 2000: 234).

Salman Rushdie at the 1988 Whitbred Award Ceremony

Salman Rushdie at the 1988 Whitbred Award Ceremony

‘You don’t have to read shit to know that it’s blasphemous.’ Or even listen to it, or view it, for that matter. The story is reminiscent of an account told by Hartosh Singh Bal who describes how, in 2003, while he was working as a correspondent in Bhopal, the BJP decided to target the performance of Habib Tanvir’s play Ponga Pandit. Bal says that he called up senior BJP leaders in the state, including those leading the demonstrations, to ask if they had seen or read the play. In each instance, he received an answer in the negative, yet they were all equally vehement in stating a case for offense. Finally, Bal states:

I called up the BJP state office and asked for the name of one, any one, BJP official who had actually seen it. It took them several hours to track down a man from the party’s Yuva Morcha in Gwalior; he said the satire was problematic because in the course of the play, when “an agarbatti can’t be found, the pandit’s assistant uses a bidi” (Bal 2011).

These accounts would be ludicrous if not for the fact that they represent how cultural conflicts have come to be resolved in practice. They show us how agitational methods first evolved by the so-called ‘religions of the book’, have since been taken over, not just by a range of other religious groupings, but also by mainstream political discourse. Cultures that did not have a notion of ‘blasphemy’ now have a corresponding notion of ‘offense’. And to the extent that nationalism has become a cultic phenomenon, bordering on jingoism, insults to ‘national pride’ can be easily attacked.

Recently, in keeping with the developing musculature of India’s new political regime, at an event organized by the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY) at the National Museum in New Delhi, “Marxist, Muslim and Western historians” were under attack. The event in question was a symposium held on 5th October 2014 to commemorate the coronation of Maharaja Hemachandra Vikramaditya (better known as Hemu) on the throne of Delhi in 1556. It sought to resurrect him as a forgotten Hindu hero, who established the ‘Hindu rashtra’ in North India, before being defeated by the armies of Akbar at the second battle of Panipat (1556). Accounts are lacking in the mainstream media of what transpired at this event; the most detailed description of it is that available on an online blog (Tiwari 2014).

The ABISY purports to be “a historical research organization,” but its focus is on history as a ‘patriotic,’ ‘morale boosting exercise’. Its website states that it is “a nation-wide organization of scholars working in the fields of history, culture and tradition, that is engaged in the writing and publication of empirical, fact-based and holistic history” (translated from the ABISY website). Some of the main projects outlined on its website include: ‘Refuting the problem of the Aryan Invasion’; ‘History in the Purāṇas’; ‘The history of tīrtha sites’; ‘A research project on the Vedic Sarasvati River;’ and ‘The Date of the Mahābhārata War, 3139-38 BCE’. This is history not as a critical venture but as a narrative for the restoration of Hindu pride and an amelioration of its sense of ‘hurt’.

Among the panelists at the National Museum was the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. True to form, Swamy stated that it was as a result of the struggle offered by individuals like Hemu that Muslims and Christians were unable to “convert 80 percent of Hindus. That is the reason ISIS wants to come back to India. To finish the unfinished task.” Further, as part of the project of recovering Hindu nationhood: “Books written by Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra and other historians of Nehru must be burnt in a bonfire.” It is reported that this statement was met with deafening applause (Tiwari 2014).

tweetby S SWamy Burn history books

Of all the ways in which you can ban a book, book-burning is undoubtedly the most violent. It also has the longest history: everyone seems to engage in it at some point in time. As far back as 213 BCE, the Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti tried to put an end to reading by burning all the books in his realm. Nor was he alone: as Alberto Manguel puts it, “the history of reading is lit by a seemingly endless line of censors’ bonfires, from the earliest papyrus scrolls to the books of our time” (Manguel 1996:283).

Those who burn books believe that it is possible to cancel history by reviling the past. In its place, they seek to establish a new time, to create a past and future world of mythic grandeur. This was the claim made by the Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels on 10 May, 1933, as he officiated over the burning of more than twenty-thousand books. In front of a cheering crowd of over a hundred thousand people, he said: “Tonight you do well to throw in the fire these obscenities from the past. This is a powerful, huge and symbolic action that will tell the entire world that the old spirit is dead. From these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit” (Ibid: 284). This is a claim that continues to be made by the fascisms of our own time.

Book Burning Accompanied by Nazi Salutes

Book Burning Accompanied by Nazi Salutes

For now, the bonfires have not been lit, but we never know when the Sangh Parivar (or its allies) may pull out a box of matches. The fact that Subramanian Swamy not only felt confident giving such a call from the dais, but also had no compunctions in subsequently repeating these sentiments on his twitter account or in interviews to the press, goes to show that his words are more than bombast or an empty threat. Instead, they represent an attempt to enforce censorship through intimidation and a culture of fear.


The American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury is reported to have said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” In India today, we seem to have a bit of both, a culture of censorship marked by ignorance and fear. It is not necessary, for instance, to read what Romila Thapar or Bipin Chandra have said: it is simply enough to dismiss them as ‘Marxist conspirators’ or ‘Nehruvian historians’. It is not necessary to evaluate Nehru’s complexities as a historical figure: it is enough to say that he ‘only listened to Edwina Mountbatten.’ It is not even required that historical arguments be built upon the complexity of the sources: Maharaja Hemachandra Vikramaditya can be reborn as a Hindu hero by citing some unverifiable ‘ghoshana patras’ and screening a ‘documentary’ made up of scenes from Jodha Akbar (Tiwari 2014). Books, films, plays or exhibitions no longer need to be understood as whole: instead, they are dismembered, piece by piece, and unconnected fragments held up as cause for ‘offense.’

The response to such acts of censorship is not only to issue statements of condemnation or denunciation. It also requires that we broaden the parameters of cultural debate. To do this, we need to reinstate a culture of critical reading. One that involves reading not only what we are comfortable with or what we think is politically correct, but also that with which we disagree fundamentally, that which disgusts us and which we may possibly revile. And it is to engage with these texts, oppose them, debate them, criticize them, even make fun of them. We need to construct entire libraries of opinion as a response to a world where only singular interpretations suffice.