The ongoing debate over recent book bans aside, one thing is certain: The written word still has a powerful influence on society, sharpened and fueled by today’s digital era with blogging and networking sites such as Facebook.
Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a former legislator and rights activist, has said that books helped make her the person she is today. Growing up in a family of readers, the young Nursyahbani spent countless hours lost in the pages of all variety of books.
“Books have taught me a lot about free thinking, freedom of expression and human struggle,” said Nursyahbani, a former lawmaker from the National Awakening Party (PKB).
She said she founded the Women’s Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Apik) after having been influenced by the words of Raden Ajeng Kartini, a national heroine, in “ Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang ” (“After Darkness Comes Light”), which inspired her to fight for women’s rights. She said she also took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s writings on the principles of nonviolent protest.
Nursyahbani said two books by founding President Sukarno — “ Dibawah Bendera Revolusi ” (“Under the Flag of Revolution”) and “Sarinah” — taught her the significance of the country’s history. And she said the poetry of Chairil Anwar and Federico Garcia Lorca and the politically-charged works of Boris Pasternak and Leo Tolstoy also influenced her thinking.
She said the storm of protest across the country after the Attorney General’s Office banned five politically-sensitive books in December showed that many others felt the same way about the written word.
“Books influence the way people think, the way they act. To me, the ban is an insult to our intellect,” she said.
“The AGO considers the public incapable of filtering what they read. Any statement indicating or suggesting that the banned books could or would incite public disorder is an unfounded allegation — this is something that has never occurred in our history.”
Adding insult to injury, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is now considering banning even more book.
The 1963 law used by the AGO to ban the books in December, according to Nursyahbani, is unconstitutional. The Constitution, she said, guarantees freedom of expression.
Nursyahbani plans to challenge the 1963 law at the Constitutional Court on Jan. 25.
The AGO said the five books it banned had the potential to erode public confidence in the government, cause moral decadence or disturb national ideology.
The banned books include “Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia,” by John Roosa, and “Lekra Doesn’t Burn Books,” jointly written by Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri and Muhidin M Dahlan.
According to authorities, three religious books are being studied and could be hit with bans. The books are “Church Voice for the Suffering People: No More Blood and Tears in West Papua,” by Socrates Sofyan Yoman; Darmawan’s “Six Ways to God”; and “Uncover the Mystery of Religious Diversity,” by Syahruddin Ahmad.
Another book, “Unraveling the Cikeas Octopus: Behind the Bank Century Scandal,” by George Junus Aditjondro, has been withdrawn from most major bookstores because of the political controversy surrounding it.
Activists have criticized the bans, saying the government has reverted to the “old ways” of President Suharto’s repressive New Order regime, which banned numerous left-wing publications, including novels by the award-winning Pramoedya Ananta Toer that are now considered among the country’s best.
But in this digital age, the bans are seen as irrelevant when people can simply turn to the Internet and download a version of Roosa’s book, for example.
Nursyahbani said she had already read the English version of “ Pretext for Mass Murder.”
“There is no doubt that this book can be held accountable, with its thorough research,” she said. “And since people can go to the Internet and download it, such a ban is no longer effective.”
Martin Aleida, a novelist, said he was not concerned that the government could one day ban his books.
“I am not afraid of people disagreeing with my thoughts, expressed in my work; people have the liberty to agree or disagree,” the former Tempo journalist said. “We have to be ready for praise or condemnation of our work.
“What do we expect our nation to become if this ban continues? Parents send their children to school in order to make them articulate and to be able to express what they think.”
Martin’s works largely cover the events of 1965 and the aftermath of the failed coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He spent much of his youth in jail as a political prisoner for his alleged involvement with the banned party.
“I took a path to be a journalist and later a writer,” he said. “I feel privileged to be able to testify about what I saw and felt.”