Since the beginning of human civilization, literature has been a crucial part of society. It not only reflects the condition of the society of the time but also shapes its future. This significant role of literature means that it has always been surrounded by controversies. In fact, in ancient and medieval warfare, the destruction of a culture’s literature was an important tactic to destroy and dominate the culture itself. The burning of libraries meant the burning of entire knowledge systems of the culture.
Though, in modern times, we do not see such large-scale destruction of literature. There is no doubt that it has been subject to various controversies. Political, social, and ethical reasons are at the core of this outrage.
In India, which has a long tradition of literature, beginning from the ancient Vedas to modern novels, the case is no different. Many works of literature have been controversial and, in many instances, banned by the government. Here are 10 such controversial books that were banned in India.
10- The Myth of the Holy Cow, by D.N. Jha
This book, by the cultural historian and professor, Dwijendra Nath Jha created controversy for its subject matter. Published in 2001, this book uses ancient Vedic, Buddhist, and medical texts to assert that eating beef was not a taboo in ancient India. Hindus believe the cow to be sacred. And, therefore abstain from eating beef, with many states in the country banning cow slaughter.
But Jha argues that this is a fairly modern practice, only starting the 19th century. This hurt the sentiments of the Hindus. And the book was banned by the Hyderabad Civil Court for offending religious sentiments and the author was even reported to receive death threats.
9- Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, by Joseph Lelyveld
Joseph Lelyveld was an executive editor for the New York Times and his book, “Move Your Shadow; South Africa, Black and White” based on his reporting in South Africa had won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1986. However, his book about Gandhi, published in 2011 was subject to major controversies.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi is considered to be the “Father of the Nation” in India. The currency and many government institutions still bear his portrait to symbolize his importance. Therefore, when Lelyveld published his book, talking about Gandhi’s relationship with the German-Jewish bodybuilder, Herrmann Kallenbach, it created controversy. Homosexuality was a crime in India as late as September of 2018. And therefore implications of homosexuality of the father of the nation caused outrage.
Even though Lelyveld stated that “the book does not say that Gandhi was homosexual or bisexual. It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach,” the Assembly of Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, unanimously banned the book in 2011.
8- The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s debut novel was a stellar success when it was published in 1997. Becoming a worldwide bestseller and also the winner of that year’s Man Booker Prize. Set in a rural village of Ayemenem in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the narrative follows the relationship between fraternal twins Estha and Rahel and also the relationship of their mother, Ammu, with the lower caste ‘Untouchable’ Velutha. It is an incident in the latter plotline that stirred controversy.
In June of 1997 Sabu Thomas, a lawyer, filed a public interest petition alleging that the novel was obscene and likely to corrupt or deprave the minds of readers. He wanted the final chapter removed, in which there is a lyrical description of a sexual act between Ammu and Velutha. There were other controversies too, surrounding incest and pedophilia.
However, the book was a success, being named one of the best books of the year by TIME. And also included in a list of 100 Most Influential Novels of all time by BBC News. Roy didn’t release another novel until 2019, but both the author and her works continue to divide the consensus.
7- The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, by Hamish McDonald
Written by the Australian writer and journalist. The book was a biography chronicler the rise of the business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani, from his humble beginnings to his successful position. And also talked about the controversies and allegations made against him.
The Ambanis threatened legal action against the book even before it was published. Due to such pressure, Harper Collins India, the publishers decided not to publish the book in India.
6- Rangila Rasul, by Pandit Chamupati
This book is an example of one of the earliest cases of controversy. The communal conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India have been constant throughout the nation’s history. Rangila Rasul was initially published anonymously in 1923, in the midst of a period of conflict between Muslims and the Hindu Arya Samaj in the north Indian state of Punjab.
The title of the book alludes to the content, which describes the marriages and sex life of the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims found to be highly offensive. ‘Rangila’ means colorful and ‘Rasul’ means prophet. The publisher, Mahashay Rajpal, refused to reveal the name of the author, and consequently, he was imprisoned and later assassinated. The book is still banned, not only in India but Pakistan and Bangladesh too.
5- Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, by James W. Laine
Shivaji Bhonsle was a leader in the state of Maharashtra where he spearheaded the genesis of the Maratha Empire. He regained importance and his legacy was recalled during India’s Independence Movement against the British. Cited as a proto-nationalist and a Hindu Hero, the king has been central to Indian history and politics.
When the academic, professor and writer, James Laine published his novel, it was criticized for its claim that the history of Shivaji was a Hindu against a constructed Muslim enemy. This led to protests by the Marathas in the state of Shivaji’s legacy, Maharashtra. In view of the attacks and the public unrest, the book was banned in the state of Maharashtra in January 2004.
After a revision in the text, the ban was lifted and the uplifting was upheld by the court, generating further protests.
4- The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger
Hinduism is one of the largest and most ancient religions of the world. The hierarchial Caste System has been a part of the religion that has been the subject of criticism and controversy from ancient to modern times.
So, when the American Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger published the book, it caused widespread controversy. The book aims to tell an alternative history, as opposed to the Brahmanical, patriarchal, and orientalist mainstream narrative. It uses the perspectives of women and lower caste people to tell its tale.
The book was consequently banned for ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of any religious community’ in February 2014, sparking discussions about the state of Freedom of Speech in the nation.
3- The Face of Mother India, by Katherine Mayo
This is another early case of controversy, one set in the pre-independence era. Katherine Mayo was an American researcher and historian supporting white nationalism. Her 1926 book written after travel to India documented several regressive practices of the Hindu religion such as; Child marriage and treatment of women and the lower castes. It opposed the idea of India’s independence from the colonial administration of the British. And claimed that India would be better off under the ‘civilized’ British colonial rule. In India, the book was protested against and burned. Mahatma Gandhi, himself no stranger to controversies, criticized the narrow ideological propaganda of the author, calling it ‘the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon’.
2- An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul
The Nobel Laureate writer of Indian origin, born in Trinidad and Tobago, chronicles his first visit to his ancestral land. This travelogue, first of the trilogy which includes India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now.
The book conveys a pessimistic, disillusioned, and disappointed feeling that the author felt on his travels. The book was immediately banned in India for its “negative portrayal of India and its people”. Later, the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel wrote the 1984 essay “Naipaul’s India and Mine” as a reply to Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness in which he calls Naipaul’s observation a shattering of his idealized image of India.
1- The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
After the immensely successful Man Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses stirred a great controversy. In the novel, Rushdie talks about verses that were removed from the Koran, which included; Verses where Prophet Mohammad mentions three pagan Goddesses, whom he describes as God’s mediums. This, along with the general portrayal of Islam, was considered blasphemy by Muslims all over the world.
The novel created headlines when in 1989; Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, forcing him into hiding for several years. The book was banned in India for supposedly promoting hate speech against the Muslims. And, it continues to be one of the most controversial works of literature of all time.