Writing against the British: Devika Sethi’s ‘Banned and Censored’ : The Tribune India

Writing against the British: Devika Sethi’s ‘Banned and Censored’

Writing against the British: Devika Sethi’s ‘Banned and Censored’

Banned and Censored Edited by Devika Sethi. Roli Books. Pages 352. Rs 1,295

Book Title: Banned and Censored

Author: Devika Sethi

Salil Misra

The period around the 18th century witnessed the emergence of an unusual kind of a state system. The older marginal kind of state systems began to be replaced by the modern states that were efficient and interventionist as well as representative and accountable. These new sub-species of State showed up in parts of Europe first. However, the states that developed in the non-European world were made up of very different ingredients. They were efficient and interventionist but, in sharp contrast to their European counterparts, alien and unrepresentative. The colonial states, emerging from Europe but established in Asia and Africa, consisted of outsiders who were completely unfamiliar with the societies they governed. They constantly anticipated rebellion and were determined to suppress it. The British state in India was a specimen of one such state. It looked upon the people as hostile, ever ready to overthrow the state. The ghost of the rebellion of 1857 continued to haunt them for many years after the rebellion had been suppressed.

The colonial state tried to cure its own suspicion of the people by making laws that would nip all such violence and subversive activities in the bud. In particular, they considered the literate people as a great source of disaffection, from whom it would spread to the people. And so, popular literature, newspaper writings, political speeches and statements, all came under the watchful gaze of the state. All such pieces of writing were branded as illegal and banned so that the ideas they contained would not spread to the larger population. The sources of all such writings — authors, publishers, editors — were punished with fines and imprisonment.

‘Banned and Censored’ is a compilation of 75 such pieces of writing that were considered subversive and a threat to the British government. And were banned. Devika Sethi, the editor of the volume, has selected these pieces from the first five decades of the 20th century, till 1947, when the discontent against the British was quite systematic and widespread. She has divided her selection of such writings into five chapters, one for each decade. The banned and censored writings have been selected from Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Oriya languages, in addition to English.

Many of the passages and the pieces that were banned were directly political and critical of the policies pursued by the British. But equally important are the creative and imaginary pieces which described the reality of the British rule in allegorical ways. The book opens up with one such piece — a Marathi story ‘A Durbar in Hell’, published in Marathi newspaper Bhala (The Spear) in 1905 around the time of the partition of Bengal. The story might have been a spoof on the Coronation Durbar held in Delhi in 1903 to celebrate the succession of King Edward VII on the throne of Great Britain. Once upon a time, the story goes, a great Durbar was held in the Empire of Hell. There was a competition on who would be a suitable candidate for the throne. The suitable occupant of the throne had to be an expert in “deeds of cruelty” and capable of practising “civilised oppression”. There were many candidates for the coveted position. But the honour went to a white-complexioned man who wore trousers, boots and a coat and smoked a pipe. He put forward his claim to the throne in the following words: “...I entered under the pretext of trade in a country in which I possessed no rights and with which I had no connection; and, by gradually fomenting dissensions among the people there, commenced to deprive them of their kingdom. Then I began to assume the authority of a king (by acting) on the principle of might is right... I robbed all of their independence. I removed their wealth from there to my distant country so that there could be no fear of its coming back. I then saddled them with different taxes. I taxed (their) incomes and (also) levied an impost upon (a commodity) which is so vital to their existence, that is, salt.” Needless to say, for all these qualities, he was chosen as the suitable ruler in the Durbar of Hell. The story leaves nothing to the imagination regarding the identity of this ruler! At a time when serious political writings were highlighting the alien character of the British rule, heavy taxation, despotism and the drain of wealth from India to England, this was precisely what the story did in allegorical ways.

The last entry in the compilation is on Subhas Chandra Bose, the quintessential revolutionary. In July 1946, the British government banned a book, ‘Testament of Subhash Bose’. The book was a compilation of some of Bose’s writings, published after his death, in which he had severely criticised the British rule and admired Gandhi. The book was banned and all the copies were confiscated from the publisher’s office. This was the time when an interim government had been established in India as part of the Cabinet Mission plan, and Sardar Patel was the Home Minister. The publisher appealed to Patel against the ban. Although the British Chief Commissioner considered the book very objectionable and defended the ban, Sardar Patel decided to lift the ban on the book. Within two months of its banning, the book became available to the readers. So much for the much-touted animosity and differences between Patel and Bose!

This is an extremely relevant book that retrieves for us the flavour of specific times, when India was governed by an alien colonial state. But it also transcends specific times to tell the story of state systems in general and their paranoid reaction against the written word that is questioning and subversive.