How a Manipur order threatens our freedoms

I know there’s an awful lot happening in the world and you can’t pay attention to everything, but sometimes, the things we fail to pick up, or even ignore, are both astonishing and self-defeating. Today, I want to focus on one such instance. It’s an order notified by the Manipur government on September 15 requiring all books on the history, culture, tradition, and geography of the state to be submitted to a state-appointed committee, headed by the education minister, for approval before they are published. Quite frankly, this is not just an attempt at censorship, but it’s also a deeply worrying violation of our constitutional right to free speech and expression.

The order says: “Some books published on the history, culture, tradition and geography of the state contain material which may either distort facts or disturb the peaceful coexistence amongst various communities.” Hereafter, books on these subjects have to be submitted to a 15-member committee comprising vice-chancellors, college and university teachers, and officers from the higher education department of the Manipur government. The order says any book published without prior clearance is “liable to be punished under the relevant law”. However, it doesn’t specify what the law is or what the punishment would be. Nor does it say whether the affected entity will be the author, the publisher, or both.

Now Article 19(2) of our Constitution permits “reasonable restrictions” on the exercise of free speech “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India” as well as “public order”. That permits the State to ban specific books. An early example is Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama, a fictional account of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. But does this permit the government to require every single book on four broad subjects to be vetted by a government committee before publication?

The answer has to be an unequivocal no. India would cease to be a meaningful democracy if the answer was yes. This is why the Manipur government’s order is preposterous and unacceptable. This is also why our failure to pick this up and protest is bewildering and dismaying.

None of this means action cannot be taken against books that are factually incorrect and could lead to trouble and disruption. The government can demand corrections. Though it should not, it can even ban the book. But all of that is to do with individual books and it only applies after they’re found to be at fault. What the government does not have is the power to vet books before publication and then decide which can be published and which must be denied that right. Yet, this is precisely what the Manipur order proposes.

Why then are our publishers, with one solitary exception, silent? I would have thought they would be infuriated and preparing for legal action. To be honest, a few in Manipur are considering this, but, as far as I know, none of the big ones in the rest of the country are contemplating a challenge.

Perhaps for small publishers, this would be too expensive. Their books don’t earn enough to cover the costs. But surely it makes sense for publishers to collectively pick up the gauntlet. After all, it’s their rights and interests that are at stake. If they accept and acquiesce, which they seem to be doing, they and their authors will be the losers.

So too, you and me. As readers, we would be denied books we want to read and could learn from. The Manipur order affects us as much as anyone else. So why is our media silent? Why are there no angry debates on television? Why are our newspaper op-eds not fulminating with outrage? Have they not understood? Or are they unaware of what’s happened? I don’t know the answer but those questions are relevant. That’s why the situation is so depressing.

It leaves me with a question raised by a friend: Is this what we’ve come to? I’m afraid the answer is yes.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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