(Posted below is an SACW compilation containing select editorials from the Indian Press followed by commentary, reactions, reports and statements opposed to the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book in India.)
India: Voices Against Suppression of Wendy Doniger’s Book ’The Hindus’ – A short compilation
- Intolerable surrender – Indian Express
- Narrowing Horizons – The Times of India
- Publish and perish – The Hindu
- Illiberal India – DNA
- Penguin’s Day in Court – Pulping the Hindus – Mukul Kesavan
- A letter to Penguin India (my publishers) – Arundhati Roy
- Our fear of freedom – Ramachandra Guha
- The appeasement of the fringe Hindu – G. Sampath
- A book censor’s paradise – Salil Tripathi
- A shameful capitulation – Arshia Sattar
- Wendy Doniger’s book is a tribute to Hinduism’s complexity, not an insult – Vijay Prashad
- Pulp Nonfiction: India’s Shameful Failure to Defend Historian of Hinduism – Tunku Varadarajan
- Penguin’s disappointing surrender – Salil Tripathi
- Changing landscape of free speech – Kenan Malik
- Academics, writers decry Penguin’s withdrawal of Doniger’s book ’The Hindus’ – Kim Arora
- A Pulverising surrender – Saurav Datta
- Pulping Intellectual Freedom: Academics will not bow down to vigilantism – a statement released by JTSA
- Online Petition to Members of both houses of the Indian Parliament, and the Honorable Law Minister, Government of India: Reconsider and revise Sections 153 (A) and 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code to protect freedom of expression in India!
- Statement issued by Wendy Doniger – 11 Feb 2014
- Text of Agreement Between Dinanath Batra and other and Penguin Books India pvt ltd
::: SELECT EDITORIALS – India’s News Papers :::
Editorial: Intolerable surrender
With the publisher’s cave-in on Wendy Doniger’s book, the republic of ideas and debate shrinks again.
With a stroke of the pen on a legal document, the publisher, Penguin India, has committed to “recall, withdraw and pulp” all copies in the country of Wendy Doniger’s encyclopaedic and cautiously titled bestseller, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The commitment was made in an out-of-court settlement with a Delhi-based group called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, which had dragged the publisher to court, claiming to be affronted by various aspects of the book, including nudity on its cover and its reading of changing renditions of the Ramayana narrative.
Capping four years of isolated agitations (in the United States, where Doniger is based, and India) against her analysis and the analytical tools she brings to her academic work, Penguin’s insupportable surrender to a legal petition is a chilling reminder of our progressively shrinking resolve to collectively contest assaults on free speech and debate.
It is a bewildering turn for the Indian arm of the publishing house that derives great pride for having pushed the envelope for free speech in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960s Britain. When a publisher does not defend to the last its writer’s right to be read — the book is available in overseas territories, so the pulping is not based on a rethink on the merits of the book — the republic of ideas and debate is in trouble. However, it is crucial to see the political and administrative landscape in which this development has come.
Prominent sections of the establishment in India have long abdicated their commitment to a defence of the written word, forsaking the liberal strategy of allowing a text to be contested legally — and legally alone — on whatever grouse, and instead even abetting intimidation as a tool for bringing censorship. It is to India’s shame that it was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Since then, through the vandalisation that hounded a scholarly biography of Shivaji out of circulation, the message has been clear.
The recent withdrawal by Oxford University Press and Delhi University of an essay by A.K. Ramanujan was a capitulation to expressions of intolerance by rightwing Hindutva groups similar to those aflutter about Doniger’s analysis.
The message they send is that contested analyses and narratives will not be challenged in debate, but debate on anything that agitated groups perceive to be unaligned to their puritanical, artificially compact worldview will be suffocated. They have got their way.
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Editorial: Narrowing Horizons
Withdrawal of Doniger book highlights sway of Taliban-like forces in India
The withdrawal of scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus highlights shrinking freedom of speech in India — and more. That Doniger’s critics — led by 84-year-old Dinanath Batra of the perversely named Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, followed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad — expressed annoyance at her book by launching an indefatigable legal campaign won’t surprise many. Hindutva’s ideologues have led often violent movements to ban works of art and academia — like MF Husain’s paintings and James Laine’s book on Shivaji.
What is surprising is Doniger’s publishers, Penguin India, buckling and agreeing to pulp her book. This reflects the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors, with governments, politicians and courts seldom standing in their way. If the law is trying to protect religious sentiment, the irony is that it is Doniger’s work — not Batra’s — that celebrates Hinduism. She appears to make the case that sex was treated by Hinduism as a natural, beautiful part of life, not to be treated with guilt and shame as Semitic religions may demand. This can hardly be construed as an attack on Hinduism. But by attacking Doniger’s work for discussing sensuality in Hindu life, her opponents display a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament. Persistent attacks like these, and supineness of authorities, raise the question whether democracy — and India’s future as a nation-state — can survive without freedom of expression.
For an answer, look to Pakistan. Indian laws which forbid offence to any religion mimic Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, and Hindutva is perhaps the only force in the world driven by Pakistan envy today. If we go down the path of hurt sentiments and incentivising professional offence takers, we will soon have no defence left against the radicalism tearing Pakistan apart.
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Editorial: Publish and perish
In a distressing pattern that has come to define the fate of publishing in India, another book whimsically determined to have transgressed cultural sensitivities, has been withdrawn from circulation. Bowing to the diktats of a Delhi-based Hindutva group, Penguin Books India has agreed, in an out-of court- settlement, to recall, pulp and destroy all copies of Indologist Wendy Doniger’s 2009 bestseller, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The trouble for Penguin Books started with a 2010 legal notice by a Hindu fundamentalist group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan, asking that the publisher and the author unconditionally apologise for the book and withdraw it. By 2013 Penguin Books was enmeshed in a legal maze, fighting a civil suit as well as two criminal complaints. Penguin Books is an international publishing giant with a record of standing its ground in the face of the worst intimidation. As Kenan Malik pointed out in an article in The Hindu, the same publisher had shown exemplary courage in the defence of The Satantic Verses, arguing that what was at stake was the future of free speech itself.
Against this sterling backdrop, and given its not inconsiderable resources, Penguin was unarguably in a position to fight a longer legal battle in defence of Wendy Doniger’s right to be read, and by implication the right of every Indian to choose what she wants to read. That the publisher allowed itself to be browbeaten into submission by a little-known outfit that saw no contradiction in its own sweeping slander of the author — among other things, the petitioner called her “sex hungry” — is a comment on the illiberalism incrementally taking India in its sweep. To an extent this was unavoidable because the churn in Indian politics was inevitably leading to a heightened awareness about community identities and group rights. However, sensibilities have become so susceptible to hurt that virtually anything written can be contested and asked to be withdrawn. The intolerance, visible especially on the social media, is towards anything seen as modern and forward-looking, with the unofficial censors assuming the right to attack and abuse at will. This twin intimidation — of censorship combined with licence — has flourished all the more in a political environment increasingly supportive of moral policing and guilty of an almost kneejerk willingness to ban books. The Maharashtra government banned Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, under pressure from vandals who attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in protest. More recently, cartoon depictions of B.R. Ambedkar had to be withdrawn from NCERT text-books. A quarter century after The Satanic Verses, the written word seems to be more and more under threat.
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dna edit: Illiberal India
The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History is the latest in a long line of incidents that show the State refusing to protect liberal values.
There is a depressing familiarity to the ruckus centred on American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The extreme, unreasonable nature of the stand taken by the Hindutva group accusing Doniger of insulting Hindus is a given. And it is regrettable in the extreme that Penguin India buckled as it did, just as Oxford University Press earlier had in the case of AK Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana. But the presence of fringe elements in every society that use the democratic freedoms granted to them to deny others the same rights is inevitable. It is the State’s responsibility to safeguard the basic tenets of a liberal democracy and ensure these elements do not succeed. That is why the court’s timidity in allowing a baseless case to drag on for as long as it did and the deafening silence from all political quarters are so disheartening. And there is a great deal of precedent for both in the recent past.
The treatment meted out to Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen must top any list of shame, from their books being banned to their being personally hounded. They provide august company for the likes of James Laine — run afoul of Marathi chauvinists not once but twice in the past decade for his books on Chhatrapati Shivaji, with both works being banned — and Joseph Lelyveld whose book on Mahatma Gandhi was banned in Gujarat in 2011. The best that can be said for the state is that it is equal opportunity in its cravenness, willing to back obscurantists of all stripes. If it quailed at the prospect of angering hardline Muslim elements with Rushdie, Nasreen and R V Bhasin, it has accommodated Christian outrage when it comes to the Da Vinci Code and the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism who took outrage at Ramanujan and Doniger.
As a consequence, a dangerous concept has taken root in the realm of public thought: it is acceptable to counter ideas with intimidation or outright violence. This is anathema to reasoned discourse and the academic and artistic churning that is essential for the renewal of a democratic society. It is certainly possible, for instance, to counter the literary and academic merits of Doniger’s book; various critics and reviewers have done so. But to silence the author by accusing her of possessing a “Christian missionary zeal” and being a “woman hungry of sex” is to say that only some people have the right to engage with certain issues, and only within certain bounds.
An individual’s conclusions about history, culture and individuals can be challenged, but his or her right to reach those conclusions in the manner they wish to must remain sacrosanct. This is the simple message political parties and the courts must convey. They have consistently failed to do so. If the BJP’s ideology and organisational links make it a sympathetic fellow traveller to those who would silence Doniger, the Congress has implicitly and explicitly backed similar attempts in the past. One need only look back to 2010 when then-Chief Minister of Maharashtra Ashok Chavan backed Aditya Thackeray’s push against Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey. And the courts, for all that they have delivered relief to beleaguered authors in some instances, have read problematic sections of the Indian Penal Code in the strictest possible way in others. Together, they have conspired to make the most illiberal elements of Indian society its wardens.
:::Commentary, Reports and Statements:::
PENGUIN’S DAY IN COURT – Pulping the Hindus
by Mukul Kesavan
Agitation in protest against Taslima Nasreen in Calcutta, 2007
If you go to the Penguin India website and search for Wendy Doniger, you get a short but formidable resume for the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. You also find thumbnails and blurbs for her books, amongst them The Hindus: An Alternative History, published by Penguin India in 2011. Even allowing for a publisher’s partiality, the excerpted chorus of praise from this book’s reviewers, Indian and foreign, is remarkable.
What the website doesn’t tell you is that less than a week ago, Penguin’s CEO, Gaurav Shrinagesh, signed off on a legal agreement to recall and withdraw all copies of The Hindus from circulation, pledged not to sell, publish or distribute the book, undertook to pulp every unsold copy of the book at the publisher’s own expense and promised that inside six months, no copies of the book would remain in circulation in ‘the Bharat (Indian Territory)’.
The back story behind Penguin’s capitulation is depressingly familiar. Aggrieved NGOs and trolls (in this case the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee) with sectarian agendas lodge multiple lawsuits, civil and criminal, against individuals or institutions alleged to have outraged religious sensibilities. To avoid the aggravation, expense and insecurity stoked by these campaigns of legal and extra-legal intimidation, the besieged publisher, writer or artist, folds. M.F. Husain threw in the towel by fleeing the country, the Jaipur Literary Festival was forced to cancel a live video link with Salman Rushdie, while publishing houses surrendered by suppressing offending texts as OUP India did with A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas” and as Penguin has done now with Wendy Doniger’s book.
To be fair to Penguin, it isn’t easy standing up for freedom of expression in India. ‘Outraging’ religious sensibilities can invite criminal prosecution and all political parties, even the ones that style themselves ‘secular’, are happy to pander to lumpen who claim to represent useful political constituencies.
It was a provincial coalition government consisting of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress that banned James Laine’s biography of Shivaji in Maharashtra and stood by as vandals sacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a great historical archive, because it happened to be one of the sites of Laine’s research. It was on the United Progressive Alliance’s watch that Delhi University’s current vice-chancellor orchestrated the deletion of Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from an undergraduate reading list. It was the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which told Taslima Nasreen that she wasn’t welcome in Calcutta. There is, in short, no political consensus in defence of free speech that a publisher or writer or artist can rely on.
That said, it seems peculiarly abject and worrying when giant global publishers capitulate at the first sign of legal or extra-legal intimidation. When the OUP, the oldest and largest university press in the world, cravenly decided to not keep the Ramanujan book that contained “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in print, people properly asked what a great, wealthy university press was doing abetting the censorship of scholarship, instead of using its resources and authority to stand up to it.
Penguin’s response to intimidation-by-litigation is even more dismaying. First, the case against the book seems borderline farcical. Doniger’s sins of commission include allegedly erroneous dates, inaccurate maps, her use of psychoanalytic categories and offensive metaphors as well as “Christian missionary zeal”. Wendy Doniger is Jewish. If there ever was a test case that a publisher stood to win, it was this one.
Secondly, there are precedents where India’s superior courts have intervened to strike down bans and related attempts to suppress books. The Maharashtra government’s ban on James Laine’s book on Shivaji was lifted thanks to the rulings of the high court and the Supreme Court. When the apex court ruled that the charge of fomenting enmity between groups was unsustainable, the ban on the book was struck down.
This was no thanks to the book’s publisher: OUP India had already withdrawn the book. The petition against the ban was moved by the documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan, an advocate, Sanghraj Rupawate and a social activist, Kunda Pramila. If principled individuals, vulnerable to all manner of intimidation, found the resolution to stand up to violence and State-sponsored censorship and fought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, it is reasonable to ask why Penguin agreed to humiliatingly abject terms before the Saket district court ruled on the case. If Penguin settled because it felt the court would rule against it, why wasn’t it prepared to go on appeal?
Third, it’s useful to remind ourselves that Penguin Random House India (PRHI) came into being in September 2013 when two of the biggest publishing conglomerates in the world, Pearson and Bertelsmann, agreed to merge their trade publishing companies, Penguin and Random House. The parent company bought out the ABP group’s minority share holding, turning Penguin’s Indian operation into a wholly foreign-owned subsidiary of a global company that employs more than ten thousand people worldwide.
It was this behemoth that keeled over and played dead while the case was still pending in the lowest reaches of India’s judicial system. Why didn’t it use some fraction of its enormous resources to defend a book that its website characterizes as definitive and an author that it describes as “one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world”?
The pulping of Doniger’s book couldn’t have been what Penguin’s CEO meant when he spoke of building on its reputation as “one of the most respected publishing houses in India”. In the agreement between Penguin Random House India and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the publisher actually “submits that it respects all religions worldwide”. Given the context this reads like an implicit acknowledgment that publishing The Hindus gave people reason to believe that it didn’t. It is the institutional equivalent of a child’s contrition: ‘I’ll be good from now on.’ What was Penguin thinking?
Perhaps it was thinking of the safety of its employees. Or perhaps Wendy Doniger was sickened by the hostility and threats directed at her and her book in India and decided to cut her losses. Both of these are good reasons and if there was a threat of imminent violence Penguin ought to tell us. Because if there wasn’t, if the reason for purging The Hindus from India was the aggravation and nuisance and expense of fighting the case through India’s courts, or the threat of criminal prosecution, then Penguin has sold itself short in a country where reading books in English used to be synonymous with rows of orange-spined paperbacks underwritten by a logo and its flightless bird.
The settlement between Penguin and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan can’t be treated like the resolution of a private legal dispute. It is a public precedent and every author and publisher in India will have to live with its consequences. The principal consequence is this: the spectacle of one of India’s largest English trade publishers caving at the first stage of the legal process will encourage cruising bigots and demoralize other publishers and writers. If a book written by a distinguished academic not living in India, published by one of the great imprints of the world, can be scrubbed so easily, what chance does an unknown Indian writer have, given that she is more vulnerable to intimidation, has less recourse to public sympathy and is likely published by a smaller firm without Penguin’s resources?
If Penguin refuses to give The Hindus its day in court and remains silent on its reasons for withdrawing and pulping the book, it should redesign its logo to reflect its new Indian avatar. That much-loved upright bird should be retired and replaced by a prone tandoori penguin: plucked, headless and quite dead.
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Arundhati Roy on Wednesday wrote a letter to Penguin India over the issue of withdrawal of all copies of US-based scholar Wendy Doniger’s book ’The Hindus: An Alternative History’.
A letter to Penguin India (my publishers)
Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done—at your out-of-court settlement with an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit—in which you seem to have agreed to take Wendy Donniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History off the bookshelves of ’Bharat’ and pulp it. There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay.
Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world. You existed long before publishing became just another business, and long before books became products like any other perishable product in the market—mosquito repellent or scented soap. You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement. Why? You have all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle. Had you stood your ground, you would have had the weight of enlightened public opinion behind you, and the support of most—if not all—of your writers. You must tell us what happened. What was it that terrified you? You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least.
The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning. Yes, it’s looking bad, but they are not in power. Not yet. And you’ve already succumbed?
What are we to make of this? Must we now write only pro-Hindutva books? Or risk being pulled off the bookshelves in ’Bharat’ (as your ’settlement’ puts it) and pulped? Will there be some editorial guide-lines perhaps, for writers who publish with Penguin? Is there a policy statement?
Frankly I don’t believe this has happened. Tell us it’s just propaganda from a rival publishing house. Or an April Fool’s day prank that got leaked early. Please say something. Tell us it’s not true.
So far I have had been more than happy to be published by Penguin. But now?
What you have done affects us all.
(Author of The God of Small Things, Listening to Grasshoppers, Broken Republic and other books all of which are published by Penguin India)
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Our fear of freedom: Doniger’s is just the latest case of courts, publishers, politicians failing to protect artistic rights
by Ramachandra Guha
It was from that fast-moving vehicle of hot news, Twitter, that i heard that my publishers, Penguin, had capitulated to a litigant in the district court of Saket who had demanded that they pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus. The news was depressing, but not unexpected — some years ago, another of my publishers, Oxford University Press, had likewise submitted to the litigant in a lower court and withdrawn an essay by the late A K Ramanujan from circulation.
Doniger and Ramanujan are among the finest scholars of our religious and cultural traditions. They have enriched India’s understanding of itself in a manner few other writers have. It is a sad commentary on the state of our nation, that a bunch of narrow-minded bigots (claiming to speak in the name of ’Hinduism’) can so easily have their well-researched, very readable, and deeply insightful works banned or burnt.
Both Penguin and OUP have deep pockets. One would have expected, and hoped, that they would have appealed in a higher court to have the freedom of expression of their esteemed authors restored. Why did they not do so?
One reason could be that they wished to cut their losses. Another is that both Doniger and Ramanujan are (or were) academics in American universities. Had they been prominent Indian scholars, the resultant furore might have persuaded the publishers to fight out their corner.
The third and perhaps the most important reason why these famous, well funded, and well established publishers are so scared to defend the rights of their best authors is that the Government of India as well as governments of different states of the Union do not really believe in intellectual freedom. For politicians of different parties have shown themselves very willing to ban books and persecute authors.
The first, and arguably fundamental, mistake in this regard was the decision by Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1989 to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses on the grounds that it offended ’Muslim sentiment’ (India, in fact, banned Rushdie’s book even before Iranians and Pakistanis had done so). At the time, historian Dharma Kumar wrote that the ban was “a sign of the government’s weakness. In a secular state blasphemy should not in itself be a cognizable offence; the President of India is not the defender of any nor of all faiths”.
Rajiv Gandhi’s pusillanimous act emboldened the bigots of all religions (and regions). In Maharashtra, chauvinists took aim at James Laine, whose scholarly study of Shivaji they deemed not deferential or reverential enough. They forced the state government to ban the book, while also vandalising the premises of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, whose collections Laine had used for his study.
The government ban on Laine’s Shivaji was overturned by the high court. But the publishers (OUP) were still too scared to stock or sell the book. They feared that their offices would be attacked by goons, with police (as is their wont) merely looking on.
In this respect, atheistic communists have not been far behind religious chauvinists. The Left Front government of West Bengal banned the works of Taslima Nasreen, merely because a few angry men had claimed they were ’unIslamic’. Nasreen had been exiled from her native Bangladesh, and naturally wished to be based in a Bengali-speaking region of India. But the communists refused even to provide protection for her in Kolkata, so that she had to leave the city to seek refuge elsewhere.
In this regard, Hindu bigots have matched, and perhaps even outperformed, their Islamic counterparts. Before they trained their guns on Ramanujan and Doniger, they had set about persecuting Maqbool Fida Husain. Exhibitions of his work were vandalised in several cities. Then, in a malevolent, systematically orchestrated campaign, a series of cases were filed against him in many different locations. In desperation, Husain moved overseas. India’s best-loved painter had been forced to flee his homeland.
How can this trend of persecution and harassment be reversed? It would help if the lower courts do not so recklessly entertain cases so clearly mala fide in intent. It would also help if at least the bigger publishers show more courage in the face of intimidation. And it would help most of all if the political class shows some commitment to upholding the ideals of free expression enshrined in the Constitution.
The first two seem unlikely, and so, regrettably, does the last. In December 2006, when Husain was still alive, i wrote an article suggesting that, in the next Republic Day awards, he be given the Bharat Ratna, with Salman Rushdie being simultaneously honoured with the Padma Vibhushan. That would have been a just assessment of their respective contributions to art and literature, as well as a blow for artistic freedom. And it would have equally offended Hindu and Islamic bigots.
My proposal did not fly, because the government of Manmohan Singh lacked not just courage, but also imagination. And future governments (and prime ministers) are likely to be as unimaginative, and perhaps even more nervous of offending fundamentalists. For the foreseeable future, India’s democratic record will continue to be tarnished by the capitulation of courts, publishers and politicians to religious bigots and chauvinists.
The writer is a historian, author and essayist.
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The appeasement of the fringe Hindu
The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book is not just an instance of liberal surrender but it is also one of Hindu surrender
by G. Sampath
The decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, from circulation is disturbing on so many levels that one could write a book-length monograph on this latest episode of scholarship surrendering to censorship.
First, there is the curious phenomenon where the country’s law and order machinery and criminal justice system, which are inefficient at best, and dysfunctional at worst, suddenly spring to life and become a model of responsiveness as they strive to protect the offence-taker from the offence-giver. There is no getting away from it: in India, the law and the state favour and incentivise offence-taking.
The second dimension is how censorship seems to have achieved full legitimacy as a form of cultural—and even literary and film—criticism. Arbitrary censorship could come about either through the now predictable route of offence-taking followed by intimidation via threat of physical violence, vandalism, etc., or offence-taking followed by intimidation via the judicial system. Either way, the end result is the same: censorship through the backdoor.
The out-of-court settlement is the latest and most insidious version of this phenomenon, taking it to a whole new low by privatizing censorship. Penguin’s out-of-court agreement to pulp Doniger’s book comes barely a month after Bloomsbury’s withdrawal of Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India, following an out-of-court settlement with former aviation minister Praful Patel.
Doniger’s book is one in a long line of cultural products—books, paintings, films, photographs, concerts—that have, in recent years, been forced off the public stage by elements claiming to be offended. We may console ourselves by thinking, oh well, thank god for the Internet—we can still at least download a withdrawn book or read it on Kindle. But that would be a foolhardy view to take. Accessibility is not the only, or even the primary, reason why censorship is such a big deal.
The real issue, as always, is political, to do with the exercise of power, to do with demonstrating dominance. It is far easier to make a display of political power in the symbolic rather than in the substantive domain. That is why you will rarely find fringe Hindu groups protesting because Hindu farmers are committing suicide or because Hindu children are suffering from malnutrition, both of which are facts in today’s India. You will find Muslim fundamentalist groups threatening violence over the visit of a Salman Rushdie or the words of a Taslima Nasreen but you will not find them holding a dharna for the implementation of the Sachar committee report. And Dalit political leaders will suddenly appear all-powerful and implacable when it comes to a matter of some insult, real or perceived, to a Dalit icon or statue or the Dalit community as a whole, but they do not often display the same sagacity or stamina when it comes to securing justice for Dalit victims of upper-caste violence.
The symbolic economy works in mysterious ways, but it works well. The reason why offence-taking and the ostensible appeasement of the offence-taker is such a vibrant industry in India today is because the investment required is zero—you don’t even need brains—but the returns are massive. There was only one way Dina Nath Batra and his NGO were going to get a few crore rupees worth of free publicity, and that was by getting offended.
But there is another dimension to all this—to, specifically, the censorship of Doniger’s book—that is even more disturbing. And that has to do with the reason why it was deemed, by certain elements, absolutely vital to have The Hindus: An Alternative History out of circulation.
The reason is that Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus strikes a body blow at the very heart of the Hindutva ideology and project. It does so by demonstrating brilliantly—and not in the dry, difficult prose of a scholar addressing other scholars but in the accessible language of a friend talking to other friends—that Hinduism as a monolithic entity was a recent, and largely post-colonial, construct.
Before the advent of the British, there flourished in the subcontinent several faiths, and several factions of each of those faiths, all of which had in common a symbolic idiom, iconography and mythology. An external observer might, looking at their similarities, lump them together as “Hindu”. But there had never existed in history a singular, institutionalized Hindu religion the way, say, Islam or Christianity have existed for most of their history. Doniger’s book is by no means the first to make this argument—nor is it even the book’s main argument—but no other work in recent memory makes this point so effortlessly, on such a scale, and with such panache, almost as if it was something too obvious from all the evidence she has collated in her book to even mention.
Constructing a singular, homogenous Hindu faith is a political project that is currently under the management control of the Hindu right. Locating this project in history, and exposing its flawed assumptions about Hinduism through a rigorously documented and anthropologically grounded narrative would take the Brahminical, Sanskritic, monotheistic, mono-cultural, prudish, claustrophobic and outright boring air out of the weird, saffron-coloured inflated balloon that the Hindu right is floating right now and hopes will be mistaken by everyone for Hinduism or whatever the term “Hinduism” is supposed to denote.
It is thus hardly surprising that these elements are desperate to have Doniger’s book surgically excised from the Indian cultural space, for only then could it become secure as a Hindu space.
The withdrawal of Doniger’s book, therefore, is not just an instance of liberal surrender but it is also one of Hindu surrender—because the more and more this happens, the only voices left that could be heard speaking on behalf of Hindus (assuming such speech were necessary at all) would be from the Hindutva fringe. There is a well known name for this process: “Talibanization”.
Doniger’s book was withdrawn at the insistence of offence-takers who claimed to be speaking on behalf of “millions of Hindus”. Who appointed them as the spokespersons for millions of Hindus is not mentioned anywhere in their petition. But evidently, the Hindu Taliban is back in favour in officially secular India. Their days as a “fringe element” are coming to an end.
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A book censor’s paradise
The number of books withdrawn from circulation has grown disturbingly large. This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind
by Salil Tripathi
Two of the biggest impacts of the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini declared on Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses 25 years ago this Friday were the chill it cast on authors who might wish to take on controversial subjects in future, and the disease of competitive intolerance that it spread among people belonging to other religions and interest groups—why couldn’t they get something banned, or disappear, from the public space? And that phenomenon manifested in all its glory earlier this week, when Penguin India, ironically the publisher of Rushdie at that time, decided to withdraw and pulp the remaining copies of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.
When Rushdie was launching his memoir Joseph Anton at a bookstore in downtown New York in 2011, someone from the audience asked him—knowing what he knew now about the reaction that the publication of The Satanic Verses had evoked, would he still write the novel today? Rushdie reflected momentarily over the question, and said it wasn’t an easy question to answer. He had written the novel at a particular time, not knowing what was to follow. He did not choose to live the life that followed. Knowing Rushdie’s work and commitment to free expression, I wasn’t surprised when he told me, when I asked him about it earlier this week, that he hoped and believed he would write the same book today.
So would Doniger, who developed an abiding interest in Hinduism decades ago. But in the next edition of her book, she might scrutinize more what happened to some followers of Hinduism that they abandoned the faith’s proclaimed tenets of tolerance, and embraced the intolerant strains of other faiths, compared to which their own faith, they claimed, was superior. Or at least different from the monotheistic religions where notions like blasphemy were tossed around to silence opponents. That is a political question, and the ease with which the Indian state acquiesced to the loud mobs that shout “we are offended!” has only made it easier for obscure groups to turn to courts. And these courts, all too willingly, admit petitions drawn from Victorian-era sections of the penal code, such as 153A and 295A, which give a licence to anyone to complain that his or her feelings are hurt, that communal harmony may get disrupted, that hatred is being incited.
But no book razed a mosque; no books entered a railway station or five-star hotels and killed people; no book blew up crowded bazaars; no book looked the other way when crowds extracted revenge on other communities over real or imagined wrongs. People did that; and those people have rarely been brought to courts to face charges. Instead, the author is asked to narrow her imagination, or to swallow his words. This is the infantilization of India.
Rushdie may indeed write the same novel today, and continue to stir our imagination and provoke our minds with inspiring fiction, and Doniger may reflect more deeply on Hindu myths, traditions, customs, and philosophy, and reward her readers with her profound thinking. It is difficult to know if publishers will stand up to the test that the mob represents. In the past few years, under the threat of litigation, violence from vigilantes, or perceived insults, the number of books withdrawn from circulation, or not distributed in India at all, has grown disturbingly large.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned was published without one chapter; my Mint colleague Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s book on the Sahara group faces a stay order and a lawsuit; Bloomsbury has withdrawn Jitender Bhargava’s book on Air India; the former Left front government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasrin’s Dwikhandito; Narendra Modi’s administration banned Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (a court later lifted the ban) and Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi; and Sonia Gandhi’s lawyers have threatened to sue if Javier Moro’s novelized version of her life, The Red Saree, is released in India. This is only a small sample, but shows that no political party is immune from the charge of being hostile to books it doesn’t like, and none is committed to unbridled freedom of expression.
This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind. We are clearly not there yet, but the dystopian scenario is not far when we live in a society where books become the objects of the décor of an apartment, chosen because of their spines match the colour scheme on the wall; where books are designed to fit the size of a modern coffee table; where they contain recipes to feed the body; where the stock tips in the book promise to make us rich; where the hagiographies of powerful men and women tell fairytales, and create new icons for a mercantilist, unthinking nation; where textbooks narrate the version of history that the ruler approves. Into that arid hell, as Tagore would rue, India has woken.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at [email protected]
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A shameful capitulation
by Arshia Sattar
It is the emptiness of the gesture that makes it pernicious; Penguin has succumbed to the undercurrents that encourage us to censor ourselves even before we are asked
Some years ago, when it emerged that Oxford University Press had quietly pulled Paula Richman’s volume that contained AK Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” from the Indian market, I remember thinking that Penguin would never do that. They were quietly and bravely fighting the cases against Wendy Doniger’s books in court. I remember feeling safe and proud of being with a publishing house that protected it’s people and the books they wrote, a publishing house that stood firm in the implicit contract between writer and publisher that lies behind the legal pages that we all sign.
Today, that pride and that faith has been shaken. In what seems like a back-room deal, Penguin reached an out of court settlement with members of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (no irony here, of course), to withdraw from sale and distribution all copies of Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” from a place called “Bharat.” Adding insult to injury, Penguin has also agreed to “pulp all remaining copies of the book at their own cost.” In many ways, this withdawl is an empty gesture because the book is still (apparently) available electronically, both legally and illegally. It is precisely this emptiness that makes the gesture so pernicious: those who want to read the book still can, but Penguin has succumbed to the undercurrents in the air that encourage us to censor ourselves. Even before we are asked to do so.
What has outraged so many of us is the additional (and damning) fact that Penguin, after being in court for four difficult years, capitulated so completely. They could have waited for the courts to decide the matter. If the court had ruled against them, they could have decided to take the case to a higher court. They could have fought harder, they could have done more than they have to save their book, any book, no matter how important or irrelevant.
Doniger’s “The Hindus” is a brave book — it took courage to write and it took courage to publish. It is a book that asks questions of an ancient religion and culture, that challenges prevailing notions of what is said and how it is done, that probes our vanities and exposes our conceits. By choosing to publish “The Hindus” in India, Penguin had clearly taken a stand for pluralism in the way we think, for diversity in the intellectual sphere, for a healthy multiplicity of perspectives in our public culture. By withdrawing the book, Penguin seems to have forgotten (or has chosen to ignore) that fact that selling books nurtures ideas, hopes and aspirations. Books build dreams, they show us new horizons, they make us better human beings. Penguin has acted like any other corporate commercial entity, one that recalls a defective or troublesome product and plans to go on with business as usual.
Penguin’s unexpected and unconscienable behaviour, this betrayal of all its writers, has not only tarnished its own reputation, it has weakened the position of all publishers in the country. The hands of the cultural vigilantes have been strengthened, they know that unspecified threats of violence and a garbled statement of hurt sentiments are more than enough to bring a proud house to its knees. Dina Nath Batra, the chief complainant in the case against Penguin, has already announced that he is going after Doniger’s next book, “On Hinduism,” published by the Aleph Book Company.
Wendy Doniger was my teacher at university. She taught me how to read a text, how to unpack a story, how to question, how to answer, how to make an argument, how to love and respect the ideas that challenge you the most. She also taught me much about how to live without fear and with conviction in a world that is not always a good or kind world. In that sense, she will always be my teacher. Penguin is my publisher. For twenty years, they have treated me well. The people that I work with have been persuasive and indulgent, firm and resolute when I have wavered. They have helped me write better books and have shrared my joy in their success. Penguin will always be my publishers, at least for the three books that they already have. Until the day comes when the powers of darkness persuade them, once again, that free thought and free speech are dangerous and they send another book, perhaps one of mine, to the slaughterhouse.
The author is a translator, facilitator and author. Her abridged translations of the epic Sanskrit texts, Kathasaritsagara and Valmiki’s Ramayana have both been published by Penguin Books
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Wendy Doniger’s book is a tribute to Hinduism’s complexity, not an insult
by Vijay Prashad
Penguin’s decision to destroy The Hindus: An Alternative History panders to an orthodox, bourgeois view of this great religion
Penguin Books India has said this week that it will destroy all available copies of the 2009 book by the Indologist Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, as part of a court settlement. Following the book’s publication, Dinanath Batra of the Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Campaign) filed a suit against the author and publisher for denigration of Hinduism. In the notice sent by his lawyer in 2010, Batra accused Doniger of “a shallow, distorted and non-serious presentation of Hinduism” which was “riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”. This lackadaisical lawsuit should have been a footnote in the world of Indian letters. With Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book, it has become a full-blown scandal.
Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, is no stranger to this kind of controversy. Her studies of Hinduism have sought to recover the buried, heterodox Tantric tradition from under the weight of the orientalist’s favourite form of Hinduism – Vedanta. For European orientalists, Vedantism was the closest to their own monotheism – a set of faith practices bourgeois in their mood and conduct. Tantrism – with its impurities of sex and diet – seemed out of favour. Doniger and her collaborators sought to revive interest in Tantrism, for which they turned to new methods of interpretation, notably psychoanalysis.
Doniger’s book is part of this “alternative” history that seeks to explore the worlds of the dalits and women – outcasts at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Out of the complexity of the myths, Doniger sought to provide a picture of tolerance amidst violence. It is ironic, then, that the court case accuses her of being anti-Hindu, when it is her work that has provided a fuller description of Hinduism.
The attack on books for being anti-Hindu began in the 1990s. Doniger’s student Jeffrey Kripal was taken to task for his suggestive Kali’s Child. In a foreword to that book, Doniger wrote that it would “delight many readers, infuriate others, and generate a great deal of creative controversy”. What she had in mind was “creative controversy” amongst Indologists. She could not have foreseen the calls for censorship and death threats that Kripal received.
By 1995, the Hindu right had emerged as a major political force in India, and in the west it had domiciled as a constituent part of multicultural society. Diasporic Hindus felt enraged that their “culture” was being denigrated, and they took offence at this through protest and the courts. The attack on Kripal was followed by criticism of Sarah Caldwell’s Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of Goddess Kali and Paul Courtright’s Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. Doniger had welcomed creative controversy, but what she got was something else. The attack was on the scholars themselves as much as on the scholarship, and there was little room for a serious discussion about the breadth of the Hindu tradition. The attackers wanted a Hinduism that had the qualities of a bourgeois religion. Sex, and homosexuality in particular, had to be expunged. It did not look good for the newly emergent Hindu right to be associated with a faith with dirt under its nails, and gods with sexual lives.
The full blast of the Hindu right’s tentacular organisations terrified Indian cultural institutions. Motilal Banarsidass, the publisher of Courtright’s book, withdrew it in 2003. The next year, the Hindu right government in the state of Maharashtra banned James Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, after a violent attack at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for its association with the book. In 2006, the painter MF Husain fled India for Qatar after his show of nude Indian gods and goddesses was attacked for “hurting the sentiments of the people”. The laws leaned upon for all this are colonial creations, which were used in the 1930s against Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven and Arthur Miles’ The Land of the Lingam. The British did not want to “hurt the sentiments” of the orthodox Brahmins so they disallowed any representation of Hinduism that gave voice to the untouchables, to women and to tribals. This old colonial legacy is now fully inhabited by the Hindu right.
Batra, who filed the suit, is a familiar character in Indian society. But this is no one-man mission. He is the head of the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the brains of the Hindu right. The spokesman of the Hindu right’s cultural wing, Prakash Sharma, called him a “senior and revered figure, who has always fought against elements that pollute the minds of our youth”.
The party of the Hindu right, BJP, believes that it will win the national elections this year, with its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi leading it to victory. Alongside the court cases of people such as Batra has been a chilling breeze through the media as owners have begun to cull editors who have been critical of Modi, notably Open Magazine’s Hartosh Singh Bal and television journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghosh. It is in this context that Penguin decided to withdraw and pulp Doniger’s book. That Penguin did not fight the case says a great deal about the limitations of corporate commitment to freedom of speech.
Doniger has a real case here. Her book on other peoples’ myths is not an insult to religion but a tribute to its complexity. If we are no longer able to breathe in all of our traditions in order to exhale the best of our capabilities, we will become a desiccated civilisation. As Gandhi wrote in 1925: “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide.”
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Pulp Nonfiction: India’s Shameful Failure to Defend Historian of Hinduism
by Tunku Varadarajan
When a blustering Indian demagogue attacked Professor Wendy Doniger’s scholarly book on Hinduism, her publisher caved and pulped her book. Shame on them, writes Tunku Varadarajan—and shame on India.
“YOU NOTICEE.” In strident, upper-case pidgin-legalese, the man—a belligerent Indian enemy of “westernization,” a strutting Hindu fundamentalist with a record of suppressive activism against books that “hurt the sentiments” of Hindus—addressed a legal notice to Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (and a woman who knows more about Hinduism than the man in question could ever hope to learn in this benighted lifetime or the next).
The man, Dinanath Batra, hurled various sections of the Indian Penal Code at Prof. Doniger, accusing her of having outraged his feelings, and those of his co-religionists, in her book The Hindus, published in his country by Penguin India. His accusations, in effect, characterized the book as hate speech. About 70 times in his short legal notice , Mr. Batra intoned the hectoring phrase “YOU NOTICEE,” as he charged Ms. Doniger with being “a woman hungry of sex” (for her highlighting of the sexuality inherent in Hindu mythology), with having “a shallow knowledge of the great Hindu religion” and a “perverse mindset,” with hurting “the feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that [the] Ramayana is a fiction,” with holding “the flag of beef eating and cow slaughter in ancient India,” and—my favorite, in which Penguin India is conjoined as “noticee”—with intending, through the book, “to cause fear and alarm among the Hindus that their religion and religious beliefs are not safe any more and can be trampled with and denigrated, distorted & insulted and hence you have intended to induce and incite them to commit offences against the State and against Public Tranquility.”
In other words, and by Mr. Batra’s argument (above): YOU NOTICEE will make us riot, and burn buses, damage public property, and put the fear of God into law-abiding citizens going about their daily business. Your book will make us misbehave. Your book will make us rampage. So say sorry to us immediately, and get your filthy book out of our country.
The fundamentalist book-pulpers won, and, in winning, have set a precedent for other capitulations in the future…and for the pulping of other books.
And what do you think happened, in the World’s Biggest Democracy? Penguin India buckled. Penguin India wilted. Penguin India wet itself, and entered into an agreement with this semi-literate goon. Penguin India capitulated to blackmail, to the threats of a cultural mobster. Penguin India turned chicken Shameful to relate (since I know people who work, and run things, there), Penguin India did a deal with the devil. On February 4, at a district court in New Delhi, it undertook to recall and withdraw all copies of The Hindus, and to “pulp”—yes, pulp, destroy, mash, slash, squish, hack, rend, tear, trash, mangle…extinguish—“all the recalled/withdrawn/unsold copies…at its own cost.” Penguin India shall, furthermore, “ensure that the book is completely withdrawn/cleared from the Bharat (Indian Territory) at the earliest, an within a period not exceeding 6 (six) months…” As further proof of its collapse into an abject, feckless heap, Penguin India submitted in the agreement “that it respects all religions worldwide.” This, remember, is an agreement with a man who has taken it upon himself to decide which books Indians can, and cannot, have on their own, private bookshelves; a man who does not respect his fellow citizens enough to let them decide for themselves what they wish to read; a man for whom politically and religiously inconvenient texts are anathema, and to be banished from the land.
Wendy Doniger has come out in defense of Penguin India, arguing that the real villain is the Indian law that permits speech to be suppressed if it offends religious sentiment. I have never met her, and I am inclined to laud her chivalry. She is clearly a person of substance and integrity, and not just of the scholarly kind. I wish, however, that I could be as accepting of Penguin India’s position. For the house to have caved in at a district court—the very lowest rung of India’s long legal ladder—was astonishingly craven. Penguin India was confronting a blustering political activist who questioned its very raison d’être, who questioned the very values on which a liberal, cultured publishing house should stand. It sold out those values, and in doing so it sold out India. The fundamentalist book-pulpers won, and, in winning, have set a precedent for other capitulations in the future…and for the pulping of other books. Shame on you, Penguin India: yours has been a great betrayal.
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Penguin’s disappointing surrender
A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’
by Salil Tripathi
This is not a ban; it is surrender. There is no nicer way to put it. Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel and agreed to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s award-winning, scholarly, entertaining, and authoritative book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, and to destroy remaining copies within six months.
Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Penguin’s decision is unlikely to be based on literary merit—the book has been on sale in India since 2009 and those who wanted to, have already bought it. Now more will try to buy it through fair means or foul. And Penguin’s decision is possibly made out of expediency—perhaps to cut costs, perhaps to avoid trouble, or perhaps out of concern for the safety of its staff. None of this reflects well on Penguin or on India.
Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti had filed a suit in 2011, seeking the withdrawal of the book, saying the book was written with “a Christian missionary’s zeal” to denigrate Hinduism and show it in a poor light. For the record, Doniger is not a Christian, and even if she were that would be irrelevant—and yet in any case, Hindu nationalists have rarely let facts get in the way of their theories.
Also for the record, when the book came out in 2009, I had asked Doniger about the rise of the more militant brand of Hinduism, which has led to attacks on the works of overseas scholars, including Michael Witzel of Harvard, James Laine who wrote a book on Shivaji, and Paul Courtright who wrote one on Ganesha, and homegrown ones, like D.N. Jha, who wrote that Hindus do eat beef and there’s no religious stricture against it.
Doniger told me then that she had written her book to clear some misunderstandings about Hinduism, and “to counteract the Hindutva misinterpretations of the Ramayana.”
Last night I asked Doniger what she thought about her publisher’s decision. Deeply concerned, she told me: “Penguin has indeed given up the lawsuit, and will no longer publish the book. Of course, anyone with a computer can get the Kindle edition from Penguin, NY, and it’s probably cheaper, too. It is simply no longer possible to ban books in the age of the Internet. For that, and for all the people who have expressed outrage over this, I am deeply grateful.”
I also asked Penguin for its response. At the time of writing, Chiki Sarkar, Penguin’s publisher, had not replied.
A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Recalling that episode, Penguin’s chief executive in London, Peter Mayer, wrote in 2009: “When we decided to continue publishing the novel, extraordinary pressures were focused on our company, based on fears for the author’s life and for the lives of everyone at Penguin around the world… The elimination of divergent points of view is incompatible with the basic tenets of free societies. We chose to frame the argument as one not only respecting the central importance of free speech, but transcending the case of this one book. The fate of the book affected the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.”
In my 2009 interview with Doniger which appeared in Tehelka, she traced her interest in Hinduism to her study of ancient languages, Latin and Greek, when she also discovered Sanskrit; and later she saw rubbings from Angkor Wat in Cambodia that her mother had. “I loved Indian painting and sculpture, and architecture and clothing—you could wear purple and orange together, which no one would let me do when I dressed in western clothing—and music (she learnt sarod from Ali Akbar Khan in Calcutta),” she told me.
What had she learnt from Hinduism? Doniger had told me: “I have learnt so much, where to begin! I’ve learnt so much about dealing with the darker side of life, with death, with violence, which I think Hindu mythology and theology deals with in a manner infinitely more realistic and profound than the Western monotheisms do. I’ve learnt a lot about animals, about ways of thinking about them and living with them. I’ve learnt to appreciate chaos and the unexpected, in ways that were hard for me to deal with when I was younger.”
Those who disagreed with Doniger had options—to protest, to argue, to publish their own book as response, and if they had a copy, to shut it. Nobody is being forced to read it. Now, go to your electronic readers, buy it, download it, read it; if you go abroad, get copies—there’s no ban on its import; and reinforce the idea that a pluralistic India does not have singular views. India thrives in its diversity and plurality—its culture and its opinions.
As freedom of expression itself is under threat, and India undergoes its own period of darkness and chaos, Doniger’s philosophical equanimity offers hope, that this, too, shall pass. It must, otherwise it is another country.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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Changing landscape of free speech
by Kenan Malik
Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect,’ we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice
Twenty five years ago on February 14, the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Salman Rushdie, for the “blasphemies” of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. It is perhaps disturbingly apposite that this should also be the week in which Penguin, the publishers of The Satanic Verses, should so abjectly surrender to hardline Hindu groups over Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, agreeing to withdraw it from publication in India. The contrast between the attitude of the old Penguin and that of the new Penguin tells us much about how much the Rushdie affair itself has transformed the landscape of free speech.
Thanks to the Ayatollah’s fatwa, the Rushdie affair became the most important free speech controversy of modern times. It also became a watershed in our attitudes to freedom of expression. Rushdie’s critics lost the battle — The Satanic Verses continues to be published (though, of course, not in India). But they won the war. The argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case — that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures — is now accepted almost as common sense.
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Academics, writers decry Penguin’s withdrawal of Doniger’s book ’The Hindus’
Kim Arora,TNN | Feb 11, 2014, 10.07 PM IST
NEW DELHI: Eminent academics, writers and lawyers have come out strongly against the withdrawal of American academic Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, following a settlement between publisher Penguin and petitioner Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti on Tuesday.
Noted Hindi literary critic Namwar Singh termed the act as an “attack on writers’ freedoms”. Having read Doniger’s book, he said, he found it challenging. “It is not the kind of book that says ’yes sir’ to everything. It challenges several beliefs. If Hindutva is so powerful and secure, it should tolerate it, and respond in kind. It is an open market, and the appropriate response to the written word is the written word itself, not a ban,” said Singh.
Jeet Thayil, who came out in support of Salman Rushdie’s banned book The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, told TOI over phone that the development was “unfortunate”. “It is unfortunate that a religion that is known for its tolerance is showing that fundamentalists are the same everywhere,” says Thayil.
A number of leading academics have also jointly issued a statement against Penguin’s decision to withdraw Doniger’s book. The statement has been signed by the likes of historian Partha Chatterjee (Centre for Studies in the Social Sciences, Kolkata), Nayanjot Lahiri and Upinder Singh (department of history, Delhi University).
Senior Supreme Court advocate KTS Tulsi concurred with Singh’s view of countering one book with another. “There is a growing tendency of intolerance in a certain section of society against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Penguin may have succumbed because they did not want to be physically attacked. It shows helplessness against unruly mobs. It is unfortunate that this should happen in India where we pride ourselves on freedom of speech,” he says.
However, Dinanath Batra, convenor, Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, and petitioner in the case, is a happy man. He says that with this move, his organization had “won the battle” but is yet to “win the war” against “faulty representation of Indian history and historical figures.”
“The writer had heavily sexualized Hindu religious figures in the book. The book had a lot of dirt in it. This caused me a lot of pain and hurt my sentiments,” said Batra.
Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti was registered in 2008 and is headquartered in Delhi. Ideologically, the group is right-wing and socially conservative and said to be associated with the RSS. When asked, Batra refused to confirm or deny the same.
In 2008, the Delhi high court had directed NCERT to remove 75 “objectionable” paragraphs from history textbooks following a petition by Batra. The organization has been active in the field of education in India, particularly in getting schoolbooks to reflect a history that, in Batra’s words, “reflects India’s pride”. The group has also campaigned against sex education in schools.
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: The 1988 book was banned in India. In 2012, Rushdie was due to appear at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, but cancelled his visit following reported threats from extremist groups. Even a video conference with the writer at the festival was stopped at the last moment.
El Sari Rojo, Javier Moro: Spanish author Javier Moro was sent a legal notice for his book on Sonia Gandhi. Abhishek Manu Singhvi was quoted in newspaper reports saying that Moro was “exploiting somebody’s privacy for personal commercial gains.”
Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, James Laine: The Maharashtra state government ban the book in 2004″ after demonstrations by Shiv Sena. The ban was briefly lifted in 2007 and then later again by the Supreme Court in 2010.
Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations, A K Ramanujan: The Delhi University Academic Council dropped the essay from the history course after pressure from right wing groups. The ABVP had campaigned for the same since 2008. The essay was about 300 different versions of the Ramayana from across the world.