Right to Read Books: A Brief Historical Introduction by Amit Bhattacharyya

Right to Read Books and Express one’s Views 

is a Fundamental Right: A Brief Historical 


Amit Bhattacharyya


The right to read books of one’s own choice and express one’s views comes within the purview of fundamental rights. In history, the stage of expression of one’s opinion appeared long time ago. And written history appeared much later than that. Human beings expressed their opinion much earlier than they started writing. However, from some historical stage long gone by, restrictions of two types have been imposed on the freedom of expression. One is imposed by the State, while the other is imposed by society. For the present, we would confine ourselves within State-imposed restrictions.

In the bygone days, there was such a social condition when everyone could express their personal opinion freely without any interference. The expression of opinion, exchange of views and such things were part and parcel of daily life and were regarded as absolutely natural. One cannot think of such a condition unless there is social equality. Such a situation could exist only in a society where there is no deprivation, no exploitation and authoritarianism of any kind. One can possibly think of such a situation only in a classless society. As expression of one’s opinion is something natural, so the question of right is not expected to appear in that society. When right is there as a normal and natural thing, the question of the emergence of the sense of enjoyment of rights can never arise. Such a sense can arise only in a situation when restrictions are imposed on the expression of independent views. Some people are able to enjoy freedom of expression, while others are deprived of it. It is this sense of deprivation that gives rise to the desire for rights. Human beings do not feel any sense of deprivation when everything is being enjoyed as something natural. It arises in a situation when some people are not allowed to enjoy those rights while some others exercise a monopoly over freedom and enjoyment of rights. That implies that such sense of enjoyment of rights can come only in a situation where inequality prevails and the society is stratified. It can arise only in a class society where the oppression of one class by another has become an established fact, i.e. where State-system has emerged.

The time of its arrival varies from one country to another. In the Indian sub-continent, it appears to fall in the late Rg Vedic period(1500-1000 BC approx) or early Later Vedic period/Yajur Vedic period(1000-500 BC approx), when the Aryans started their eastward migration from the Land of the Seven Rivers along the foothills of the Himalayas.

Burning of Carvack and his writings in Ancient India

There are ample instances in the pages of history about how new social, intellectual and political forces were marginalized in one way or the other. In ancient India, Brahmanism was the ideology of the ruling classes and hence the dominant ideology, when new Protestant philosophical schools of thought/sects numbering 62 or 363 such as Buddhism, Janinism or Ajivikas made their appearance in the 6th century BC.
One of the most important of these schools of thought was Lokayata(folk philosophy, materialism, atheism etc) school. This philosophy probably made its appearance earlier than the most ancient Buddhism and even before the Upanisadas. Makkhali Gosala is regarded as the founder of this school. However, the greatest proponent of the Lokayata school was Carback. Debiprasad Chattopadhyay, the philosopher, relates the story of the epic, Mahabharata after the war was over.  All the Brahmin pundits had been waiting to greet the Pandava King Yudhisthir.

Among them there was Carvack. Carvack came forward and charged the king with the crime of committing the murder of his relatives. The Brahmins became very angry and burnt Carvack to death. They made a bonfire of his writings also, denouncing him as a ‘hedonist’, ‘seditious’ and ‘heretic’. Whatever small things we know about Carvack’s philosophy we know from the writings of his adversaries, i.e. that which they mentioned by way of refuting Carvack’s thoughts. This burning of Carvack along with his writings is the worst example of brutal suppression of the greatest dissenting voice of the time so that his philosophy would disappear from public memory for ever. In the later days, many other dissenting voices made their appearance and were suppressed by the dominant Brahmanical ideology as ‘pashanda’, ‘heretic’ and their views as ‘seditious’ in nature.

Burning of Books and the Elimination of Dissident Scholars in Ancient China   

What happened in ancient India also happened in ancient China, though probably on a larger scale. We know from the “Records of the Historian” written by Szuma Chhien, the ancient Chinese historian, that slave system prevailed during the rule of Chou dynasty(Western Chou dynasty/12th century BC to 8thcentury BC and the Eastern Chou dynasty/8th century BC to 3rd century BC). In that society the most important philosophy was that of Confucius which served as the ideological basis of slavery. Among many other schools of thought were Taoism and the Legalist Thought. This Legalist school represented the interests of the emerging feudal forces of the time. In 221 BC, emperor Chhin Shih Huangti established the first feudal empire in China. The Legalist thought advocated the introduction of the same law throughout the country and represented the feudal Chhin dynasty. During Chhin rule(221 BC to 206 BC) at the initiative of prime minister Li Ssu, many books of the Confucian school of thought such asClassic of Poetry, Classic Book of History, Confucian Analects etc. were burnt down. However, despite such actions, the imperial archives retained copies of most of the ancient texts, including the Confucian classics. Li Ssu also accused sections of the intelligentsia of singing false praise in favour of the emperor and raising dissent through libel and gave orders to kill 460 such scholars.

Forbidden Books in Pre-Revolutionary France

A large number of books were banned during the French Revolution of 1789. Books written by Voltaire, Didero, Rousseau and Montesquieu were banned. Such books were very popular also. However, these books were not the most popular of the lot. Books that were best-sellers and most popular were other books, also banned by the Bourbon regime and were written and sold under the cloak. These formed a libertine literature that assailed the orthodox values of the Old Regime. Salacious, blasphemous, treasonous, these illegal bestsellers formed an integral part of the culture of dissent in the Old Regime. They intersected with gossip, rumours, jokes, songs, graffiti, posters etc all of which coalesced in a political folklore that powerfully portrayed and attacked an illegitimate regime.

Robert Darlton in his book on Forbidden Books in Pre-Revolutionary France has discussed three of the most influential bestsellers: Therese Philosophe, an anti-clerical blend of sex and metaphysics; L’An 2440, an attack on the Old Regime in the form of a utopian fantasy set in a far distant future Paris; andAnecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, a scathing work of political slander with the king as its target. These texts were generally anonymous or they bore fictitious names. The police department of Paris described those books as “bad books”. But how could they identify “bad books”? The police kept a few lists. The king’s council issued individual condemnations. Bishops fulminated from the pulpits. And the public hangman lacerated and burnt forbidden books in great ceremony at the foot of the staircase before the Parliament of Paris.

One could not even judge a book by its title. Some title pages flaunt their forbidden character by gross language—Le Cul d’Iris (Iris’s Ass) or by provocative false addresses such as “printed at Philadelphia” or “at the sign of liberty”, or “at a hundred leagues from Bastille” or “with approbation and privilege from the king” or anything with a flagrantly false address—“printed at the expense of the Vatican”. The Paris Police department asked the publishers’ guild to find out and make a list of those “bad books”. There were many books whose language and essence they could not understand. However, they could find that these “bad books” were actually “philosophical books”(livres philosophiques) which smelled of treason and blasphemy. It served as a signal in their commercial code to designate books that could land them in Bastille. These are the books that had to be handled with care.

In medieval Europe, feudalism ruled and Catholic Church held sway. Any criticism leveled against it was treated as blasphemy and the outcome was death. In those times, any form of dissent against it was heresy and was banned by the State. Those heretics were decapitated or burnt to death.

Forbidden Texts in India Under Colonial Rule                 

From the late 19th century, the British colonial rulers started enacting one black law after another curbing freedom of political speech and activities. The Dramatic Performance Control Act of 1876, the Sedition Bill of 1897, the Sedition Meetings Act of 1907, the Newspapers(Incitement to Offences) Act and the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908, the Indian Press Act of 1910, the Defence of India Act of 1915, the notorious Rowlatt Act of 1918, the Indian Press (Emergency Powers Act) of 1931 followed one after the other. A large number of books—swadeshi, patriotic songs, poems, articles were banned. The authors whose books were banned included Mukundadas, Sakharam  Ganesh Deuskar, Girishchandra, Saiyad Abu Muhammad Ismail Siraji, Sarat Chandra, Nazrul, Manabendranath Roy, Satyendranath Mazumdar, Soumen Thakur, Bijaylal Chattopadhyay and others. Books which, though not formally banned, but were under State surveillance included Anandamath of  Bankim Chandra, Nildarpan of Dinabandhu Mitra, Palashir Yuddha of Nabinchandra, Bhabani Mandir of Arabinda, Russiar Chithhi of Rabindranath, Mewar Patan of Dwijendralal and many others. There is a complete list of proscribed books in the India Office Library in London. After the hanging of Kshudiram Das, the youngest revolutionary, a swadeshi dhuti(dress made of cotton) was manufactured in the swadeshi cotton mills with a message printed on it ‘ekbar biday de ma, ghure aasi’(Adieu, my mother, let me be born again in your womb). The British imposed a ban on such dhuti in an order dated 12thMarch 1910.

Forbidden Texts in Independent India  

Did the situation change at all after India became formally independent? Not at all. On the contrary, suppression of the freedom of speech and action and oppression on the people has increased. The Constitution of independent India formulated and made effective during 1949-50 consists of 395 Articles, 250 of which are either copied verbatim or included with slight modifications from the Government of India Act of 1935—an act which was condemned at that time as a ‘charter of our bondage’ by the future first prime minister of independent India. Can an independent country frame a constitution with any one Article that bears the birthmark of slavery and bondage? The IPC, CrPC, Sedition Act, Police Act, Land Acquisition Act and many more are all black acts of the colonial days. In the Indian Constitution, there is a long list of ‘Fundamental Rights’ that the citizens of the country are supposed to enjoy. However, the irony is that each of these black and draconian acts only goes to negate what he or she gets from the constitution. The Defence of India Rules, Defence of India Act, Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA), Maintenance of Internal Security Act(MISA), Public Security Act, TADA, POTA, UAPA—each of these draconian acts are enacted to gag freedom of speech and action. Each of these laws is followed by bi-laws which actually negate the ‘fundamental rights’ as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. These laws are actually ‘lawless laws’ which should not have any place in a democracy. In the early 1950s, CPI periodicals and newspapers such as ‘Janayuddha’ and ‘Swadhinata’ were banned. A large number of dissident activists were incarcerated. During the 1962 war with China, many political activists were put behind bars for being ‘pro-Chinese’. Books and atlases demarcating the boundary between India and China supporting China’s claim were taken out from the National Library of Calcutta and and burnt. Neville Maxwell’s book India’s China War was declared illegal in India when the issue was raised in the Indian Parliament. Mao Tse-tung’s Writings, Bertrand Russell’s book Unarmed Victory and other books of a similar nature were burnt by people infected with chauvinism and jingoism in Kolkata and elsewhere.

In 1967, ‘a peal of spring thunder crashed over’ Naxalbari heralding the dawn of  revolutionary politics and radical culture. Along with all-round State repression and brutality there descended attacks on freedom of expression, publication of books and freedom to read books of one’s own choice. On 27 April 1970, police raided the office of Deshabrati, the organ of the WB State Committee of the CPI(ML) and then of Liberation, the central organ, and seized furniture, press matters, types and arrested press workers. All the publications of Deshabrati—booklets such as ‘Marxist Philosophy’, ‘Marxist Theory and Social Revolution’, ‘Chinese Path and the Communist Party of India’, ‘Real face of Parliamentary Democracy’, ‘Boycott of Elections in the form of Questions and Answers’, ‘Report of the Terai Peasant Movement’, ‘Srikakulam’, ‘China’s Chairman is Our Chairman, China’s Path is Our Path’, ‘On New Democracy’ by Mao tse-tung and many more were made illegal. Mao’s ‘Red Book’ published from Peking was also banned. A Large number of magazines and booklets published in different areas were also banned.

Readers can get an idea of the nature of the proscribed literature from the seizure list of police cases. Let us take up the Entally Conspiracy Case—an anti-State sedition case framed by a police officer named Ranajit(Runu) Guha Neogi who earned much notoriety for his sadistic torture inflicted in the Lalbazar central police lock up particularly on Naxalite women activists. Materials included in that seizure list were as follows: 1. Deshabrati dated 27 July, 31 July 1972; 2. Sixteen leaflets; 3.Liberation, January-March 1971, Vol. 4, No.3; 4. Lots of unidentified periodicals; 5. Book entitled ‘Two International Documents’; 6. Book entitled ‘National Democratic Front for National Democratic Tasks’; 7. Presidency College Magazine, Aswin 1376(1968-69); 8. Book captioned ‘Collected Writings of our Respected Leader Comrade Charu Mazumdar’, 562 copies; 9. Liberation, July 1971, 20 copies; 10. ‘Poob Aakaash Lal’(The East is Red), November 1971, 8 copies; 11. ‘Chinese Literature’, Nos 8 & 9, 1969; 12. Ho Chi Minh’s ‘Prison Diary’; 12. Hindi Lok Yudh, 22 April, 1972; 13. Peking Review, 5 February 1972; 14. Inner-Party document on ‘On Pakistan and the line of Deshabrati-Liberation’; 15. Booklet captioned ‘Naxalbarir Siksha’(Teachings of Naxalbari).

Later during 2001-02,  Prof. Kaushik Ganguly, Parashar Bhattacharya, Sudip Chongdar, Mithu Roy and others were arrested and tortured in the lock-up and Abhijit Sinha was forced to commit suicide. In their case a seizure list was given by the police which included some issues of ‘People’s March, Aneek, a Bengali periodical, George Thomson’s well-known book, ‘From Marx to Mao tse-tung’ and a leaflet captioned ‘Clinton, go back’.

That phase was followed by people’s movements in Nandigram and Lalgarh and police repression also became intense. During that phase, apart from common people—activist or not—printers and publishers were also attacked. Bapi Goswami of Sreeparna Press near Barasat and the proprietor of Calcutta Grafix at Ultadanga were taken into custody. Swapan Dasgupta, the editor of ‘Bangla People’s March’ were arrested under the draconian UAPA, tortured and left to die virtually without medical treatment in prison. Members of some such democratic, civil and human rights bodies as Sanhati Mancha, Lalgarh Aandolan Sanhati Mancha, Matangini Mahila Samiti, APDR, BMC and others were intimidated and branded as ‘Maoists’ by the WB State agencies so that they desist from raising their voice against state repression and incarceration of the Adivasis and others fighting for their rights, dignity and justice. The question is: why does the State impose restrictions on dissenting voices, organizations and magazines? Can the State achieve its goal by so doing?

Opernplatz, book burning campaign by the Nazis in Berlin, 11 May 1933, Photographed by Georg Pahl.

Why does the State Impose Ban? Does it Bear Fruit?

The government which professes democracy cannot curb freedom of expression, of publication of books by individuals and organizations. Still it does. Why does it do so? They take recourse to it when they are afflicted with deep-rooted socio-economic crisis, when people’s voice against state repression gets louder and louder and when the rulers find it hard to combat them ideologically.  It is the State which is armed with weapons, forces and black laws which they use according to their own sweet will against their adversaries even though they are sons and daughters of the same soil. They believe that since they are armed to the teeth, they would be able to crush people’s resistance as they wish. Ruling classes all over the world think that by putting a ban on a book they will be able to put an end to its reading, by closing the publication of a book they will be able to stop the dissemination of the ideas it professes, and by banning an organization they will be able to send it to oblivion. Does what they believe will happen actually happen?

First, in some situation, it can happen, but that too for a brief period. Actually the eagerness to know what is forbidden increase, not diminish, among the people, particularly among the young generation. Banned books are then printed secretly, circulated among people and they go on changing hands. Clandestine literature make their way, spread their network keeping the ruling classes in the dark and placing them in a state of perpetual anxiety.

In China, clandestine literature were printed and circulated secretly among people during the stage of the Revolution of 1911 under Sun yat-sen, not to speak of those published later during the stage of Communist revolution. The British rulers could not stop the circulation of ‘seditious’(read patriotic) songs and poems by enacting black laws. The result was just the opposite. Nor could the colonial rulers wipe out revolutionary ideology by sending Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Batukeswar Datta and Surya Sen to the gallows.

In his speech against banning and the anti-State sedition act before the Sedition Committee on 1stNovember 1907, the leading lawyer, Rashbihari Ghosh stated that the rulers had forgotten that “they cannot coerce thought, they cannot make men loyal by legislative enactment…” To make discontent illegal does not pay as then ‘discontent was driven beneath the surface’. Rabindranath Tagore stood against the Sedition Law and wrote his critique of it in Kantharodh(Gagging freedom of speech) in 1898. He wrote: “I am not a rebel, nor am I a hero, probably not foolish also…I do not where exactly I stand. I know not what steps that I may take would invite the rulers’ wrath…one fine morning I see that the chains that rusted for being unused for long are being polished to bind us with new laws as…as we have become dangerous’. He went on to state: ‘Suddenly, I have woken up to realize that the weak did not have any rights at all. We woke up to the reality that what we thought all human beings would get naturally is being enjoyed by us due to the mercy towards the weak from the strong…”

When Deshabrati, the organ of the CPI(ML) was banned, it began to be printed secretly. Production was not stopped. Printing got decentralized. Instead of being printed in a central press at Keshab Sen Street in central Calcutta, it was printed in different localities such as in Beliaghata, Behala etc by respected area committees under stressful conditions. Copies were circulated secretly and the same copy changed hands until the copy got soiled due to wear and tear. Niranjan Bose and his team were in charge of the central team looking after printing and publication. Much later, the WB State Committee of the CPI(ML) People’s War started its Bengali organ Biplabi Yug under the leadership of the same Niranjan Bose. Initially, it was published openly. Later, after the party was banned, the organ also went underground and regularly changed its cover page to deceive the police.

So many reading materials throughout the world were banned for being “seditious”, and still the message of change and revolution spread far and wide. Thus ideas cannot be killed by banning any literature or an organization. This is simply because there was a deep social and political demand for such literature among the people, as these writings addressed certain issues which were burning issues and affected the vital lifelines of the people. Robert Darnton starts his book with the following words: “When the public hangman lacerated and burned forbidden books in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice in Paris, he paid tribute to the power of the printed word”. Undoubtedly he did pay. Similarly, when “seditious’ literature are made illegal by governments in India and other countries, they, quite unknowingly, pay tribute to the strength of the ideology of the dissidents. What one may add is: this new ideology is so powerful as to make the State too scared to confront it openly.

Second, as we know, the CPI(Maoist) was banned on an all-India level with a “terror” tag attached to it on 22 June 2009 and, henceforth, it came under the purview of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention(Amended) Act of 2008. That ban has been extended along with the act itself, as the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA) has been in force in Manipur for the last 35 years. But by banning the CPI(Maoist), both the central and state governments have unknowingly admitted the fact that the Maoists are a formidable political force to deal with.

Third, by banning them, they again quite unknowingly have admitted something which can never acknowledge in public. That is, they have admitted their own failure to combat the Maoists ideologically and politically. The Naxalite/Maoist movement is the longest surviving revolutionary movement in the history of our country, having a history of nearly five decades since 1967. They have raised certain fundamental questions on socio-economic conditions, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, disastrous effects of the Western model of development on our society and economy, the plunder of the country’s vast resources by the foreign MNCs and domestic big capital and advocated the need for introducing a truly self-reliant, pro-people development model in our country. Many of these issues have been raised by social scientists, writers, political activists, intellectuals, retired and in-service bureaucrats over time. However, the powers-that-be at the centre and the states have never cared to seriously address these fundamental issues, never cared to fulfill their own fundamental obligations to the people. So by treating it solely as a ‘law and order problem’, it has only betrayed its utter inability to combat them on the political and socio-economic planes. In fact, by banning the Maoist party, they have, in reality, admitted to their own defeat in the face of their formidable enemy.

Fourth, while opposing the ban on the Maoist party, K.G.Kannabiran, the late civil rights lawyer-crusader wrote a letter to Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then Indian prime minister stating: ‘Maoist intervention or for that matter any political intervention on account of the failure of successive governments to perform their fundamental obligations could not be considered an act terrorism and justify invocation of draconian laws’. In fact, democracy and ban never go together. It is quite unfortunate that the powers at the centre and the states have utterly failed to appreciate the significance of this lesson.

Howard Fast in his ever memorable novel, ‘Spartacus’ that transcended historical epochs wrote that the name of Spartacus, the legendary slave leader who fought against mighty Rome, was uttered among the slaves sometimes in whispers and sometimes at the top of the voice. In the same way, the names of Thomas Munzer, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Charu Mazumdar and so many other rebel leaders were uttered in many lands. No degree of intimidation, coercion, threat to life or incarceration could stop people’s voices.

A couple of years back, Mamata Banerjee-led WB government amended Section 24 of the West Bengal Correctional Services Act of 1992(introduced by the previous left-front governemt) which gave the status of political prisoner to all those charged with the commission of political offences. They have done it at a time when the whole issue of political prisoner status was kept pending in the Supreme Court. In the amendment they have withdrawn the status of political prisoner from all those who are members of any ‘banned organization’. So members of organizations banned by the state will not get that status. Here we will not dwell either on the revengeful attitude of the TMC-led government towards those whom they consider to be their sworn enemies, or with the election pledges regarding the release of all political prisoners—a pledge they have conveniently broken; we will rather deal with the members of ‘banned’ organizations. The State has banned the Maoist party as also various radical mass organizations and some Muslim organizations for being supposedly involved in “seditious” activities. The question is: seditious activities are offences of a clear political nature and thus anybody charged with committing such political offences are the first to be declared as political prisoners. By depriving its own citizens, charged with “seditious” activity, of this status, the present WB government has actually made itself a laughing stock. They ban an organization on the charge of commission of the most serious political offences(sedition). It is tantamount to accepting the serious political nature of the ‘offences’ legally. But then they refuse to give the status to those political ‘offenders’ on the ground of being members of banned organizations. How foolish and funny their illogic is!


The progressive, democratic and conscientious people in our country have always fought for the establishment of the fundamental rights of freedom to read, to publish, to express one’s opinion, to act and to disseminate one’s ideas by brushing aside intimidation and veiled threats from the various state agencies, fundamentalist elements and vested interests from time to time. There is no doubt that they will continue to do so by braving all odds and strengthen this battle for democratic space and the restoration of all those fundamental rights of the people without the enjoyment of which this land will not remain fit for human living.

Source: Towards a New Dawn