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How Wendy Doniger and her publisher can rescue ‘On Hinduism’

Tuesday, 4 March 2014 - 3:12pm IST | Agency: dna

The odds of substantive law are heavily loaded in favour of free speech. All Doniger and her publisher Aleph need to do is to put up a spirited fight.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, said Marx. Ironically, Dina Nath Batra and his cohorts vindicate the prophetic Marx when they pounce upon scholars like Wendy Doniger, berating them as being “the offspring of Marx and Macaulay”.

In February this year, Batra notched his first victory against the “Christian” assault on “his” Hinduism by compelling international publishing giant Penguin to bow in “respect” and decimate all copies of Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Good times are in the offing, he had gloated, while declaring another Doniger work – On Hinduism – as the next target of his bully’s truncheon.

True to form, a legal notice has been slapped on Doniger and her publisher Aleph Book Company. The litany of complaints is longer than the previous one – perhaps the previous success has emboldened the zealot’s screech. The notice is quite confounding, stacked as it is with stray phrases lifted without any apparent application of the mind, and strung together by nothing other than a zealot’s craven desire to ram his own belief down everyone’s gullets. 

Parsing the bullying rag, one gets to know how hurtful and offensive the “sexual thrust” of Doniger’s “titillating sexual tapestry” is. In her book, which Aleph hails as a “magisterial volume”, a “scholarship of the highest order, and a compelling analysis of one of the world’s great faiths”, Doniger talks about Brahmin men’s monopolisation of Sanskrit, their oppression of women and Dalits, and Vivekananda’s exhortation to overthrow the caste system and the taboo against beef consumption. As regards the great epics, she mentions Kunti’s bedding multiple gods, Ram’s shedding crocodile tears at Sita’s kidnapping, and Ravana’s lust for her. Then there is this limerick, whose truth most Indians would grudgingly testify to:

A Hindu who didn’t like kama
Refused to take off his pajama,
When his bride’s lustful finger
Reached out for his linga
He jumped up and ran home to Mama.

Batra, who proudly proclaims his RSS credentials, is also mortified by references to Brahmins’ hypocrisy on avarice and monogamy, and is absolutely furious at the Sangh Parivar (the BJP-RSS-VHP combo) being called Hindutvavadis and the self-appointed custodians of millions of Hindus’ faith. Did anyone hear the irony meters exploding with a bang?

Since the law of hurt sentiments – Sections 295A and 153A have been invoked to demand the culling of the book – and since we are still bristling with Penguin’s timorous surrender out of “respect for the law of the land”, it makes sense to probe deeper and weigh Aleph’s odds, just in case it decides against a shameful surrender.

The “law of the land” is embodied not only in legislative provisions but also in judicial interpretations of the same, and it is here where one sees a dazzling ray of hope.

The courts have a long tradition of protecting freedom of speech by upholding the right to express divergent and alternative views on religions even if they rile a majority of believers. Moreover, in order for the law to clamp down on freedom of expression, it is incumbent upon the petitioner to prove real, imminent danger to communal harmony, and not merely vague allegations of malicious intentions and purportedly scurrilous statements. This “proof” mandates the shunning of passages randomly clubbed together, entirely out of context. Most importantly, the interpretation must be based on the perspective of a reasonable, liberal person, not the vacillating minds of doubting Thomases pathologically wired to smelling danger in every contrarian point of view.

Of the series of judgements in this regard, three are the most apposite. 

Back in 1976, the Uttar Pradesh government banned social historian and cultural activist Periyar’s Ramayan - A True Reading – ostensibly because the anti-majoritarian, anti-Aryan narrative of the book had hurt Hindus’ feelings. The Supreme Court not only quashed the ban, but also took the government to task for pandering to the eulogy of its supporters by seeking to drown out reasoned and measured criticism of a faith. Then, in 2001, when the BJP government in Delhi sought to proscribe SAHMAT’s posters depicting the Ram Katha (an alternative narrative of the Ramayana) in the Buddhist and Jain traditions, the Delhi High Court put its foot down on not allowing free speech to be trampled by insular bigotry. 

James W Laine and Oxford University Press’s victory over the Shiv Sena in 2010 was another robust defence against the likes of Batra and his motley squad of cruising fanatics. The Supreme Court, in 2010, acknowledged and praised Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, holding that a scholarly work would never be deemed as being malicious or scurrilous enough to attract those dreaded censorious provisions. 

As recently as 2011, the Delhi High Court again acted as the bulwark. Shabnam Virmani’s documentary Had-Anhad (Bounded-Boundless) on Kabir’s interpretation of the Ramayana and his message of communal harmony raised the hackles of the Hindu right and was also caught in the Censor Board’s dragnet. Among other things, the phrase “that militant Ram used to stoke Hindu-Muslim hatred in India today” was picked on, bereft of context, and singled out as the principal culprit. Not only did the court emphasise upon the need to uphold, protect and promote diversity of interpretations, howsoever “offensive”, but while dismissing the apprehensions of communal conflagrations, it went a step ahead, holding that restrictions on expression must be justified “on the anvil of necessity and not on the quicksand of convenience or expediency.”  

Lest some fanatic proclaiming some other “faith” crawls out of the woodwork and screams holy murder, the courts’ “secular” approach to free speech deserves a mention here. 2005 witnessed the Calcutta High Court quash the West Bengal government’s ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandita despite Islamic fundamentalists threatening a bloodbath. And in 2006, both the Madras and Andhra Pradesh High Courts refused to play tango with the government, which had given in to incensed Christians and banned the screening of the film The Da Vinci Code (based on Dan Brown’s novel of the same name).

With the law on its side, it behoves Aleph to take up a spirited cudgel against the bigots’ swashbuckling bludgeon.


Saurav teaches Media Law & Jurisprudence in Mumbai and Pune. Follow him on twitter @SauravDatta29.

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