When the news of Penguin India withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History broke out on social media, the natural instinct was to condemn the Hindutva fringe groups who wanted the book banned. Liberals went to town decrying the failure of the Indian state to protect the democratic rights of a writer. The Hindus started trending on Twitter. Stop banning books! Down with Hindutva forces! Free Speech Zindabad! The book was already out of stock on Flipkart, so many ordered through Amazon (thankfully this writer already had a copy). Ebook links were also distributed on Twitter.
Then, the agreement reached between the publisher and the relatively unknown litigants was leaked. The entire four page agreement was signed on a Pengiun India letterhead. And one suddenly realised there is no ban by any court of law. The Saket district court didn’t ask Penguin India to withdraw the book. While some media reports suggest this arrangement was court-arranged, nowhere in the agreement is there any counter signature of a notary or any court official. Neither is the agreement on a stamp paper. What happened seems to be an out of court “settlement” or a private treaty reached between the publisher and a bunch of loonies. The loonies had their day and say. The book will voluntarily be withdrawn by the publishers from the territories of “Bharat”. To put it in simple words: Penguin India has chickened out! (This comes just weeks after Bloomsbury India withdrew former Air India executive director Jitender Bhargava’s book The Descent of Air India after a similar private arrangement).
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how India’s liberals are responsible for the creation of Modi (a metaphor for the resurrection of Hindutva). This latest incident is a perfect example of how liberals pander to the society’s undemocratic fringe elements and give them space. And then they crib about growing intolerance in society.
Of course, Doniger is not the first incident. Just two weeks ago, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai voluntarily withdrew a play which dealt with themes such as the 2002 Gujarat riots and terrorism after another set of maniacs published a threat on their website. Imagine the “chickening out” syndrome among our liberals has become so widespread, you do not even need to be threatened personally. Nowadays, all you need is a website – to ban a book, stop a play or exile a painter.
Even as we wait for Penguin India to issue a formal statement on why it did what it did (the writer did make multiple attempts for a response from Penguin team, but was told a formal statement is due soon), let’s look at the antecedents of the relatively unknown group which seeks the book’s withdrawal. The website of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee has a photo of Gandhi on its masthead along with messages of justice and peace. But a simple Google search will show it has been praised for this issue on SanghParivar.org. The content in the link has however been withdrawn. In 2009, the organisation initiated a curriculum on sex education that had no reference to sex!
Now, let’s look at the objections raise by the group against Doniger’s book. While Scroll.in has done a superb job in highlighting the main issues, I find the key contention is basically on two grounds: sex in Hinduism, and politics. What particularly interests me in the current atmosphere – winter is almost here – is the mention of the RSS in the petition. Doniger has allegedly accused the RSS of being responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. Is this the reason why Penguin quietly wanted to withdraw the book without antagonizing the Hindu right which is slated to win the upcoming general elections?
The Saffron wave is coming, declared the BJP’s newly acquired poster boy Subramanium Swamy on Twitter as he gleefully announced the withdrawal of Doniger’s book. Once a hero of the Emergency, nowadays Swamy doesn’t leave any chance to rub his Hindutva credentials on any available face, nor do many NaMo bhakts or Modifiers who, unlike their leader, give a completely different impression of the coming days. It certainly doesn’t look like Ram Rajya for writers, journalists or artistes in India.
As the erstwhile face of Hindutva (nowadays considered a liberal) LK Advani once said of journalists during the Emergency: “When you were only asked to bend, many of you chose to crawl.” At least during Emergency, some publishers had the spine to carry blank spaces where stories were censored by the then Congress government. The fact is, the likes of Swamy or lesser evils will exist in all times – Modi, post-Modi or pre-Modi – but can publishing houses, that too international giants, afford to give in to their demands?
Look at a similar example in America, where Muslim writer Reza Aslan came under attack from the Christian right for writing a historical account of Jesus. Thankfully, his publishers, Harper Collins, didn’t withdraw the book. One might argue that America doesn’t have same kind of loons that we do in India, but the author did face an onslaught (remember the Fox interview), though he stood by his ground, as did his publishers. Perhaps that’s what is expected of all publishers and publications if you want the liberal space for ideas to survive, or else it’s going to be pure mayhem with or without Modi. So let’s stop playing victim and stand up for our liberal values.
Kunal Majumder is Associate Editor (Digital) at Zee Media Corporation. He tweets @kunalmajumder.