“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on,” wrote Helen Keller, in An Open Letter to German Students in 1933. Keller’s How I Became a Socialist was on the list of books to be burned. “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them,” she wrote.
Today you cannot perhaps have campaigns like Nazi’s book burnings, nor can books disappear off the shelves as they did in the United States during the McCarthy era. Yet the powers that be have thought of ingenious ways to stop people from reading books.
A recent order by the department of education in Britain needs to be seen in this context. It has ordered schools in England to stop accepting funds from groups or organisations which have expressed the desire to end capitalism. Anti-capitalism is seen by the department as an “extreme political stance”, similar to opposing freedom of speech, anti-Semitism and endorsing illegal activities.
This order effectively makes it illegal even to refer to significant sections of Britain’s own history and politics—which once involved powerful forces of socialism, the Labour party and trade union struggles—in the curricula. In their long journey, each of these sections have talked of moving beyond or ending capitalism. The great British writers, Thomas Paine, Iris Murdoch, William Morris, would have to be expunged from syllabi because their writings underlined how profit cannot be the sole goal. The absurdity of this decision has been noted by teachers as well as concerned citizens. A teacher posed an interesting question in a newspaper: “When teaching philosophy, do I need to be concerned that Plato’s Republic seems to advocate a state-controlled, non-capitalist economy?” As expected, the Conservative government has been widely condemned for its growing authoritarianism. Yet, shocking as it is, the decision is not at all surprising.
The conservatives were always sceptical of democracy and free speech, and now their control over the political narrative is loosening because of inept responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, faltering Brexit tactics as well as inability to manage government spending. Perhaps they have concluded that now is an opportune time for an unexpected strike and the easiest way is to unleash a “culture war”, aim to stand up for “British values” to win back dwindling support while distracting from serious problems they are experiencing on a daily basis.
Their sudden concern over “extreme” political stances is a facade to target individuals and institutions who challenge the status quo. The famous British columnist Owen Jones underlined that for the Tories, Hungary under Orban is an example to emulate. Perhaps a “plausible future” for Britain awaits there. According to him, Hungary still maintains the trappings of a democracy, elections do take place, for example, and an Opposition still exists, but the rulers are pushing an ultra-nationalist agenda with impunity, and its “culture wars” stigmatise migrants as their favoured instrument—if not using the pandemic to curtail the civil rights of sexual or other minorities. A case in point is the suddenness with which they rewrote the school curriculum to promote a nationalist agenda and curb academic freedom.
The culture war in parts of the former British empire in South Asia is unfolding with a similar dynamic, but much more comprehensively. Pakistan is decisively on the path to Wahabisation, whereas India is inching towards RSS-inspired Hindu Rashtra. In Pakistan, the talk is about creating a “religion-based society”. Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at Lahore and Islamabad and is a well-known human rights activist, wrote about how the country’s new education policy seeks to put madrasas on par with other schools. It proposes that representatives of Ittehad Tanzimat-i-Madaris (Coalition of Madrasa Organisers) will scrutinise textbooks and decide what Pakistani children will learn. Religious readings would be mandatory from nursery school onwards, and step up for standard 1 to 5 students—even beyond what madrasas require at present. There is discrimination and segregation inherent to this system, since these rules would apply to Muslim students only. Besides, there is a proposal to link university degrees in Punjab with studying the Holy Quran and its translation.
Would all of this be qualitatively different from the Nazi arsonists who targeted books for being “subversive” or representing ideologies— Jewish, pacifist, religious, liberal, anarchist, socialist, communist—opposed to Nazism? The very idea that modern education can be brought on par with religious education is problematic because critical thinking would be sacrificed in such a shift. What the new policy in India’s neighbour seeks is more religiously observant students who dwell on life after death and shun critical thinking. Close watchers of Pakistan's education system would say these changes go beyond what Gen Zia-ul-Haq—who put Pakistan decisively on the Islamisation path—had ever envisaged.
Analysts say Imran Khan had promised to usher Pakistan into a “Golden Age of Medina”. But it is not just he and Pakistan. The idea of a golden past has fascinated articulate sections of India as well. The present rulers of the “world’s biggest democracy” want to usher in a Ram Rajya—their version of Hindu rashtra with exactly this idea in mind.
If the Conservatives in United Kingdom have drafted a plan that will invisibilise parts of its own history, their counterparts here are boosting a communal consciousness of history by revising textbooks to undermine or misrepresent the past. Historian KN Panikkar explained the modus operandi in a speech he delivered years ago, but which explains the current trends perfectly well. (An added effort by the conservative Hindus has been to manufacture history itself.)
The present dispensation at the Centre has even appointed a committee to put a seal on this “Hindu first” version of history. A 16-member panel panel for the “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other countries of the world” seems to be to further the government’s triumphalist agenda, regardless of the latest findings about human settlements and migrations in the Indian subcontinent.
Gone are the days when universities taught “universal knowledge”. Perhaps for the first time in independent India’s history, there is intense stigmatisation of students and teachers who raise questions. Will books—repositories of knowledge that stimulate people to think—survive this onslaught? Perhaps the last scene in the 1966 film, “Fahrenheit 451”, provides an answer. The only English movie directed by renowned French director Francois Truffaut, was based on a dystopian novel by American author Ray Bradbury, which depicts a future in which books are outlawed and burned. Fahrenheit 451 is supposedly the temperature at which books burn. It was written during the growing anti-communist hysteria in the United States after the Second World War, when McCarthy was leading a witch-hunt against communists and other anti-establishment people.
In the film, the central character is a fireman named Guy Montag, who destroy properties considered illegal, including books escapes to the countryside where he meets the Book People, a large community of ordinary citizens who have memorised texts to keep them alive. One day, Guy Montag also selects a book to memorise and becomes one of the Book People.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.