PUCL Bulletin, March 2004

The long battle on intolerance

-- By K.G. Kannabiran, 18 Jan ‘04

Legend has it that Caliph Omar was directed by the Emperor Amr-ibn-al-As to set fire to the Alexandrian library as he entered the city in 642. We are not sure whether this legend is true, but what remained over all these centuries is the remark said to have been made by Caliph in defence of his deed. “If the content of these books agree with the Holy Book, then they are redundant. If it disagrees they are undesirable. In either case they should be consigned to flames”. A library is not a neutral place. Collection of books implies choice. As one engages oneself in the task of collecting books, the aim will always be to provide books reflecting several points of view and several perspectives. It provides space for partisan and objective scholarship as well for the researchers and readers to reflect upon. A library does not express or supports any particular point of view. A library may contain books informing you of the several points view on a given subject but the disagreement with the views expressed in some of the books should be no reason to destroy a library.

History also tells us how emperors built libraries as store houses of knowledge and information We also witnessed in Twentieth century re-enactment of Caliph Omar’s performance: The Nazis consigning to the pyre “degenerate books”; counter revolutionary and bourgeois literature prescribed by Stalinist Russia and Senator McCarthy in the name of liberal democracy exiling ‘communist scribblers’. These were all acts of the state against which one can fight and even overcome these practices politically and through the system of justice and through representative institutions and other venues available. If hooligans and thugs are set up to act as censors how should one deal with such a situation. Privatization of the power to regulate freedom is a flagrant breach of the Constitution and its arrangements.

A band of persons claiming to belong to Sambhaji brigade attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute publicly harassed the senior scholar Shri Kanth Bhandarkar. This is increasingly becoming the norm from the time the National Democratic Alliance assumed power at the Centre and Shiv Sena’s growth after Babri Masjid. The hooligans indulged in these acts may not even know about the activities of the centre. These storm troopers called brigades are the emerging threats to almost all the freedoms while the State and the Ruling Party’s leading members maintain studied silence permitting the ‘liberal’ Prime Minister alone to make appropriate noises in sympathy. By banning the book by the American Ideologist the State Government has supported the act of the vandals.

The State Government has never been courageous enough to take on Shiv Sena or its front organizations and instead to appease their leader, banned James Laine’s book on Shivaji. The reasons required for proscribing the book are not there. The Prime Minister never condemned the attack engineered by the political allies of the Ruling Alliance but condemned the banning by the State government as their Party is not the Ruling Party in the state is a non BJP. The restraints that can be imposed on freedoms have been privatized. Thus the functions of the government is surrendered to a bunch of hooligans and they will decide what to read and what not to read and what should be written and what should not be written. This interference with academic activity by zealous fundamentalists or their ill informed storm troopers is likely to spell disaster for the society, its culture of plurality and tolerance which gave it the strength to survive for thousands of years. We are asking for prosecuting of the crowd, which has no courage of conviction to own up their acts and these will be recidivist for such acts of crime are their only political activity. There has to be a campaign against this kind of politics and the battle will have to be a long drawn out one.

Otherwise the consequence very well may be what Ted Hughes wrote in celebrating the opening of the new Library at Alexandria:

Fourteen centuries have learned,
From charred remains, that what took place
When Alexandria’s library burned
Brain damaged the human race.
Where any nation starts awake
Books are the memory. And it’s plain
Decay of libraries is like
Alzheimer’s in the nation’s brain.


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