Book burning and intellectual freedom

John Milton in his work Aeropagitica wrote, “He who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” Here, G S Jolly shares his views on book burning and intellectual freedom.


The origin of intellectual freedom can be traced back to Socrates, who believed in the value and benefits of free discussion. The concept of intellectual freedom involves protecting the rights of all individuals to pursue the types of information and to read anything that interests them. Attempts by the member of the community to remove materials from a library collection or to restrict access to them may be the most common challenges to intellectual freedom.

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

What is book burning?

Book burning is the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials, usually carried out in a public context. The burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. Burning of books is not a new phenomenon of human tolerance.

Historical evidences

As early as 312 B.C. Sheh Huang-ti, emperor of China ordered the burning of all copies of the first anthology of Chinese poetry compiled by philosopher Confucius. When burning of this anthology failed to silence the Confucian scholars, he burnt all their books. According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” Books of poetry, philosophy and history were specifically targeted, so that the new emperor couldn’t be compared to more virtuous or successful rulers of the past.

Heinrich Heine, German-Jewish poet, remarked that when they have burned books, they will end up in burning human beings. We have many examples when the rulers were not only prolific burners of books but also had little compunction in burning heretics. King Louis IX declared the collection of Jewish civil and ceremonial law the Talmud, to be an evil work which had to be burned.

What is intellectual freedom?

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question cause or movement may be explored. A fair and prosperous democratic society is built upon access to information and ideas, the ability to develop knowledge and communicate with others.

Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas without restriction. It is also described as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. Intellectual Freedom is important because it is essential for a democratic system of governance. To govern themselves responsibly, people must be well-informed.

Intellectual freedom curtailed…

Many authors have lived under the shadow of death by intolerant rulers and powers that be because the authorities were afraid of works and thoughts. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was proclaimed as blasphemous to Islam by the rulers of Iran and promised US$ 5 million bounty award to any faithful Muslim who killed the besieged author. Rushdie’s book was publicly burnt in many parts of the world.

Indefinite postponing of showing of a documentary by filmmaker Sanjay Kak at the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce in Pune, cancellation of video link with Indian born author Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival are a few examples to quote.

James W. Laine’s slim volume, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, published by Oxford University Press, was another victim of the culture police.

Several years after its publication, Perumal Murugan’s novel Madhorubhagan (‘One Part Woman’) had come under attack for blasphemy from religious and political groups. In an abrupt conclusion to the eighteen-day protests that had been waged in Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu against Perumal Murugan for his novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman), the author announced his decision to give up writing entirely. In the backdrop of animated debates worldwide over the freedom of expression, this instance of a writer’s voice being quashed comes as an uncomfortable reminder of where we stand.

Some years back, University of Mumbai, withdrew Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, from English literature syllabus. Copies were burned to protest against the ‘obscene and vulgar language.’

Why books are banned and burned?

The irony is that people, who burn books, obviously don’t read many of them. Banning and burning of books also has an interesting aspect. In California, the Head of English in a school banned George Eliot’s Siles Mariner as he thought that was the only way to get the students read the text. Because as the saying goes ‘forbidden fruit is always sweet.’

Banning and burning of books is sometimes also related to promotion gimmick. Book burning can also be considered as a promotion technique, if the book has that potential. When a group of people rounds up a dozen or even a hundred copies of the offending book and burn them, the resultant publicity has an enormous effect on book sales. An example being Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

We should never forget that every book burned enlightens the world. In the words of Alfred Whitney, “Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. The only sure weapon against bad idea is better idea. The source of better idea is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.” Charles Bradlaugh has rightly said, “Without free speech, no search for truth is possible, no discovery of truth is useful. Better a thousand abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial stays for the life of people, and entombs the hope of the race.”

“Hundreds of copies of S Haresh’s Meesha upon its release in 2018 were burned by mobs and fanatics in public places. Book burning is sheer barbarianism; you don’t really need a wise man to see the misplaced sense of context and concocted lies they bank upon to create a paltry sense of protection, to create situations that really don’t exist. Hundreds of police officers were on duty protecting offices and retail shops of DC books during the book burning fiasco with death threats and boycotts hurled in numbers. We were sure that the ones wanting to burn the books were not really our readers” -Ravi Deecee, DC Books

According to traditional Tibetan sources, the library at Nalanda University was spread over three large multi-storied buildings. One of these buildings had nine storeys that housed the most sacred manuscripts. The library burned for three months after the invaders set fire to the buildings. Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by Turkish Muslim invaders, also called Mamluks, under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193 AD. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have housed more than 9 million manuscripts.

The Library of Alexandria, one of the world’s first, burned at the (theorized) behest of a conquering Julius Caesar, academics believe it may actually stand as one of the all-time biggest book burnings. The destruction is undeniably among the most significant examples of completely game-changing book burning.

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