Here is a proposal worth considering and then rejecting. Burning and banning of books usually conjure up the images of fascists and times of Inquisition.
Dalit and Athiest/Rationalist tradition has been that every ‘Burning Manusmriti’ is accompanied by speeches about the book’s contents and context. Very often the programs of Manusmriti burning are preceded and followed by discussions and debates about the contents of the book, usually with those around who have no idea why the hell anybody should disrespect a ‘holy’ text that is very ancient. Such people are also typically ignorant of the fact that it is one program Dalits have been conducting through out post-Independence history all across the country.
In fact, the best part of this extraordinary form of protest, initiated actually by the most liberal and educated of our modern politicians, is to highlight and alert people to the poisonous tradition and pernicious continuity of it this book represents. So there is no contradiction between reading and debating the contents of it and burning it. This is a false, or at least not a necessary contradiction between them.
(There are those who tend to turn the burning of Manusmriti into a yearly ritual,with only one or two speakers informing the participants of the event of this book burning as if all the rest need not have any serious encounter with it by actually personally reading the text. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be any actual copy of the book, but some effigy-like representation of it. The poet and radical publisher’s discomfort with this mode of protest is completely justified for that reason).
Given the ever-growing and intensifying Nazist attacks on books, opinion, even thinking itself, not just against books they dislike, contrary opinion and different thinking, it is difficult to maintain the difference this typical Dalit protest (and ‘propaganda’) form that happens all over the country every year ever since Babasaheb first started it, if the organisers of the event fail to emphasise the extraordinary nature of the kind of protest ‘Burning Manusmriti’ represents.
When the liberal, enlightened and now unmistakably more civilised societies (to our own barbarism) in the West chose to ban Hitler’s book Mein Kaempf and punish those who even carry it, they were not violating their own democratic and liberal principles and allowing for any barbarism. They banned Swastika and Mein Kaempf and punish ‘Hitler Salute’ not as an exception to the liberal rule but as a confirmation of it. That the evil this symbol and the book represent do not belong to this world and should not belong to this world.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No one is demanding the banning of Manusmriti’s publication or trying to block its publication. Burning it in public is actually, at least in effect, an invitation to read it and reject its message.[/pullquote] Thus relegating these symbols and relics of inhumanity out of the realm of human decencies and civilised norms, these western societies (not only states) behaved not just sentimentally towards the greatest disaster they (and the whole world) suffered (and caused) – the Second World War and the Holocaust – and committed the mistake of any inconsistency in their own liberal and democratic principles. They merely emphasised the radically, fundamentally, qualitatively different kind of evil Nazism represents.
Such precisely must be the message of Ambedkar who started it all; whom even opponents cannot say that he was not an exemplary democratic personality and embodied the best of Enlightenment principles. Manusmriti must be treated exactly like Mein Kaempf, the former works mostly through influence while the latter impacted like no one in history. Neither of the two books were read very widely. And, even more importantly, the fact that they were not read didn’t matter.
That the cumulative cultural transmission down to the deepest recesses of consciousness and become part of our habitus made a situation where the ardent followers of Manusmriti while working under oath to abide by constitution often do not read Manusmriti and don’t have to read it, does not relieve us from the responsibility to read it thoroughly before burning it. If anything, it will only help the opponents of Manusmriti find if they are inadvertently agreeing with it in their own practices, plans and thinking. If this book didn’t have to be read at all to inject its poison, one might hastily ask how does burning a copy of it would fight its harmful effects. This is a gesture of distancing: that we are now a democracy and we are no more following the Manusmriti and the like and we have a modern, liberal, socialist and democratic Constitution which rejects and replaces the Manusmriti.
Before any one helpfully points to me that Mein Kaempf has indeed been published in Germany recently, let me invite them to see a bit closely what kind of a publication it is. And, the fear in the wake of and before the publication of the first autobiography of Hitler was NOT that it would be read widely and be dangerously influencing people. Even the concern that Neo-Nazis would use it was not the main objection to allowing its publication. The real concern was that it normalises, relativises the evil the Hitler salute, symbol of Swastika and Mein Kaempf are relics of and accommodate them into an existence, even a marginal and negative one, and allows it back to the tolerable and tolerated world of humans and in the process runs the risk of blunting the powerful message in the extraordinary legal provision of banning them and the no less important cultural gesture of the larger society approving such sanction.
Be that as it may, no one is demanding the banning of Manusmriti’s publication or trying to block its publication. Burning it in public is actually, at least in effect, an invitation to read it and reject its message. The idea that you can either read it or burn it, or even the one that says you better read it than burn it is, in the end, a wrong-headed one, despite the obviously honourable intensions of those propose it and useful discussion it must give rise to.
Taken from Facebook status of the author