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Storm over Wendy Doniger’s book: Rhetoric, rights and reform

Thursday, 27 February 2014 - 8:30am IST Updated: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 - 11:13pm IST | Agency: dna

Publisher Penguin India has been facing flak for withdrawing its book The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. Much of the criticism has been righteous bile and rhetoric without reason. It is time to think constructively.

There are two struggles here: the fight to save The Hindus (to keep it in print), and the fight to protect freedom of expression in India.

The first fight was won when Penguin signed the private settlement. Since Doniger owns the copyright, the book would now be open to be published in India by anyone other than Penguin. Academics who contend that the book is legal should first convince the author (who blames Indian law, implying that she herself considers the book illegal). And if the country’s best historians can confirm that it is good scholarship, re-publication by a university press should be easy.

The second fight — to protect freedom of expression — has conventionally been a battle of free-riders. Put simply, should we free-ride on Penguin (by making it bear the cost of protecting our freedom) or should we and Penguin free-ride on someone else (by making the next publisher fight the battle up to Supreme Court)?

Many prefer to free-ride on Penguin for moral and pragmatic reasons. Morally, we argue that Penguin has made money from this bestseller and it must plough those profits towards the legal battle. Realistically, we believe that Penguin is a big multinational corporation and can withstand the long haul in court. Both arguments have merit, but neither carries weight to justify one company fighting alone or indefinitely.
Penguin was not founded to protect freedom of expression in India; it was set up to publish books, give returns to shareholders, and other less noble goals.

We are all capitalists now, in deed or thought. Hence, rather than only rant against globalisation, writers, publishers, and readers who favour a liberal interpretation of the law would do well to creatively use capitalist tools. For example, the new publisher can set up a ‘Freedom to Publish Doniger Book Fund’ and crowd-source donations. He can thus minimise free-riding and legally fight for the book till the Fund dries up. The Fund’s sustained advocacy will also make citizens more aware of their freedoms and gradually increase acceptance of religious critiques in India.

The Penguin-Doniger case has highlighted the need to not only protect freedom of expression but also expand its space in India. Demands have now risen to reform Section 295A — the real culprit — such that we should be able to comment freely on religion and religious beliefs without always violating the law. The online petition started by academic Ananya Vajpeyi is a milestone. It must be followed up with a campaign to reform Section 295A. Writers, publishers, readers, and others interested in learning about religion must set aside differences and fight to expand their freedom of expression. As a first step, stop attacking Penguin, and make it an ally in the campaign.

And next time, when a publisher is wounded by India’s most sensitive souls, do not indiscriminately shoot to make an example out of him. It will only drive corporate publishing executives (risk-averse bureaucrats) towards greater self-censorship. Instead, try for a calm and reasoned dialogue — it may not meet the dramatic requirements of the TV newshour, but will throw up practical solutions to protect and expand the freedom of expression.

Diligent and steady work for legal reform, studied criticism of religious fundamentalism of all hues, intelligent use of mass media, and non-violent methods are our best bet to protect and expand the freedom of expression under Section 295A.

The author is an editor and writer with experience in the book publishing industry

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