In February 2015, it was reported that ISIS militants ransacked the Mosul public library in Iraq and burnt 8000-plus books. There were reports of further burning of the Mosul University library and other private libraries in the city and in the Anbar province of Iraq. It was also reported that ISIS had launched a campaign of burning books that do not fit in to its ideology. The move was condemned the world over as an act of terrorism by itself.
Destroying of books, libraries and scholars has been used as a tool by those in power for various reasons all through history. The Chinese term ‘fénshu kengrú’ refers to the supposed burning of books and live burying of scholars in 212-213 BCE by the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. This is the first recorded history of such act. The destruction of the library of Alexandria in Ancient Egypt, in first century BCE, and the burning of the library of Antioch in ancient Syria and the library of Serapeum, again in ancient Egypt, both in fourth century CE, for religious reasons are interpreted as acts of cultural cleansing by historians.
Even in recent times, we know the Nazi Germany’s burning of the Zaluski Library, in Warsaw, Poland, during World War II and the burning of the National Library of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge around mid-1970s. In 1981, the Jaffna Public library, the then second largest library in South Asia, was burnt down with 95,000 books and a large collection of palm leaf manuscripts as a part of the pogrom against the minority Tamil population.
In India, the Nalanda University, a repository of Buddhist knowledge, was ransacked and burnt by the Turkish Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. In 1984, the Sikh reference library was burnt as part of Operation Blue Star and the books taken away. Since 1988, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has been fighting legally to restore materials taken away from the library.
In all the above cases, it were those in power who engaged in such acts. On November 14, 2018, however, the High Court of Madras ordered to destroy 2,000 copies of a book that reportedly supports the banned Sri Lankan Tamil militant organisation LTTE, stating ‘When LTTE has been declared as unlawful association, if the books were returned to the appellant, naturally, he will circulate the books to general public and there is every possibility of the general public and/or buyer of the books get persuaded by the principles of the banned organization and cause disturbance and threat to the peace and public tranquillity’.
This is the first time that in a democratic country the court has legally ordered destruction of books with ‘seditious materials’. Even while courts have banned different books under various circumstances, the authors are arrested and cases filed against them. Books are seized. But never has any court ordered to destroy the books seized.
In this particular case, the books were seized partly in 1993 and later again in 2002. A case with sedition charges was filed against author Nedumaran, a veteran politician and writer from Tamil Nadu. The trial was conducted in the Alandur Judicial Magistrate court. In 2005, the Judicial Magistrate acquitted Nedumaran, but the seized books were not returned. He filed a separate case asking for return of the books. It is in this case that the High Court of Madras gave its verdict after 12 long years on November 14, 2018. The author is acquitted from the sedition charges for writing the book. But when asked to return the seized books, the High Court said the book has seditious material and hence has to be destroyed. This is a judicial contradiction.
A book is an output of a writer’s hard work. A writer spends months to write a book. In the case of this book, Nedumaran has risked his life and travelled to the war zone to get first -hand information. Forget the money spent on printing it. After all the hard work, if the book does not reach the reader, it is a huge blow to the writer. Not allowing a writer to publish his book for 24 years is taunting him as a writer.
Nedumaran has authored 35+ books in Tamil, on different historical and political issues. At the age of 85, he continues to write. His 1,207-page book on the life of LTTE chief Prabhakaran was published in 2012.
Despite all this, this octogenarian writer’s agony remains unaddressed. His books have been in police custody for 24 years. During this time, the books may actually have been damaged. In the era of digital books, it is easy to publish an online copy of any book or circulate it as a pdf. Banning of books has become just symbolic. But what Nedumaran is fighting is a battle to defend freedom of expression.
Banning of books, films and such material are today considered actions against freedom of expression. The Madras High court, in 2016, refusing to pass orders to seize the book titled ‘One Part woman’ by Perumal Murugan, clearly stated that ‘the decision to read is with the readers. If you do not like a book, throwing it away is a reader’s personal choice’.
Very recently, the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Deepak Mishra has rejected a plea seeking a ban on Malayalam novel ‘Meesha’, for allegedly portraying Hindu women and temple priests in bad light. Dismissing the petition, the apex court said “book should not be read in a fragmented manner. It has to be read as a whole. The writers possess the freedom to express their views and imagination and readers too enjoy the freedom to perceive and imagine from their own viewpoint.”
Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression to every citizen of India. This is a fundamental right under the Constitution. Fundamental rights prevent a government from becoming tyrannical, by putting a check on its absolute power. It is actually the denial of these rights that would lead to social tension that will disrupt the peace of society.
When there is an attempt by the state to deny the fundamental rights to any citizen, the judiciary holds the responsibility to restore it back to the citizen. This role of Judiciary is the core of democracy.
Judiciary is the last hope of not only the common citizen, but also for defenders of human rights. In recent times, many activists, writers and defenders all over India, have been silenced by slamming false cases on them or to the extent of being killed. But in many of these situations it is the courts that have come to their rescue. A clear line between judiciary and the governments is an indication of a strong democracy. If this line is blurred and the judiciary reflects the stance of the governments, then democracy is in danger. This verdict is such an indication of the blurring of lines. It is an alarm to the rights defenders. If we do not wake up to this alarm, and raise our voices, we will be losing the autonomy of our judiciary, thereby leading to the death of democracy in this country.