Last week, Penguin Books India concluded an out-of-court settlement with Dinanath Batra of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan to withdraw and destroy all paper copies of University of Chicago Indologist Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. The book, according to the plaintiffs, was derogatory to Hinduism and offensive to the religious sentiments of Hindus. To be clear, the book has not been banned but voluntarily recalled to be pulped by Penguin – it is still easily available in electronic format in India.
The news was greeting by the usual theatrics on Twitter – several “eminent public figures” decried censorship in India and voiced their support for freedom of expression. Hartosh Singh Bal even suggested that he would never publish with Penguin again. Others – “Internet Hindus” as they have been christened – attacked Wendy Doniger’s scholarship, questioning her command over Sanskrit and the framework and context of Hindu scriptures. Doniger also responded to the hue and cry by expressing gratitude to her supporters, defending the publisher who has remained quiet so far, and condemning Indian laws that muzzle unpopular opinion.
India’s legal structure is, at best, paternalistic towards notions of freedom of expression. Article 19(2) of the constitution, amended by the First Amendment in 1951, allows the state to place “reasonable restrictions... in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” The Indian Penal Code also has several sections that forbid the sale of “obscene” books (Sec. 292), acts prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony (Sec. 153A), and malicious acts intended to outrage religious sentiments (Sec 295A).
No wonder, then, that India has banned its share of books, journals, and pamphlets in several of its languages including English since the early days of the republic. In addition, the Central Board of Film Certification must certify all films produced in the country before their release.
In the zeal to vilify the other side, both Doniger’s detractors and her supporters have missed that this has nothing to do with free speech or Doniger’s scholarship, but is a commentary on the sad state of law and order in India. It is a reasonable assumption that Penguin, a commercial venture, wishes to make profits for its owners. Why would it withdraw and destroy all the copies of a book it had invested in at its own cost? The likely answer is that Penguin wished to avoid its offices or outlets selling its books being vandalised by unruly mobs. Shops would not carry Doniger’s book for fear of attracting the ire of the “offended Hindus”.
The Doniger case is not an exception to India – just last month, Bloomsbury apologised to ex-Civil Aviation minister Praful Patel and withdrew Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India; Bloomsbury was probably afraid of political retribution or violence from “overzealous readers” just as Penguin is today. Interestingly, this episode did not receive the same widespread condemnation witnessed over the Doniger incident. India’s state and central governments have repeatedly ceded power to thugs acting in the name of religion, ethnicity, or a political party because of electoral calculations. Law enforcement machinery is not used to dissipate unrest and legal proceedings against the thugs, if ever attempted, are likely to be stalled in India’s infamous judicial backlog.
A quick survey of India’s free speech landscape reveals the government’s failure to stop Hindu vigilantes from attacking art galleries carrying MF Husain’s paintings; the government caved in to demands by Muslim groups to redact the film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities; a government minister from Uttar Pradesh, Mohammad Yaqoob Qureishi, offered a $11 million bounty on Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who depicted Sunni Islam’s final prophet as a terrorist. In 2006, the Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen, a political party, attacked Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen’s book tour for writing a book that portrayed the treatment of women in Islam and Hindus in Bangladesh in a negative light. India became the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the author was recently deterred from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. In Bombay, the Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt the screening of Shah Rukh Khan’s film My Name is Khan; in 2003, another mob ransacked Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute over dissatisfaction with James Laine’s Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India. In 2009, Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha of The Statesman were charged for merely reprinting Johann Hari’s article Why Should I Respect Oppressive Religions?. And most recently, Muslim groups demanded a ban on Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam.
The selective paeans in defence of free speech and the failure of the central and state governments against groups – and even ministers – acting in the name of religion, ethnicity, or political parties has brought India to this juncture when corporations no longer have faith that their premises and employees will be safe after the publication of a controversial book. In contrast, despite a loud campaign by the Church against Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday kept the book on shop shelves and actually benefitted from a large bump in sales.
The brouhaha over Penguin’s withdrawal of The Hindus has, as much as some quarters would like it to be so, nothing to do with saffron radicalism or Doniger’s scholarship. It is a symptom of the development of a Wild East in India wherein policy is decided by groups with the most muscle power. The alleged intelligentsia’s double standards on criticism of threats to freedom of expression encourages more people to take matters into their own hands. Unless there is a genuine class of loud public figures who are willing to stand for principle rather than against their pet hatreds, no pressure will be brought to bear on the courts and law and order machinery to enforce the aforementioned principle.
I hope a saccharine declaration in support of freedom of expression is not required; the Brandenburg v Ohio case remains the pole star of free speech advocacy.
Jaideep spends most of his time avoiding work; when not married to his books, he likes to cook, sail, and scuba. A great admirer of Hatshepsut, Jaideep refuses to live in the 21st century. He grew up in the Middle East and Europe. When forced into wage slavery, he is a doctoral student in History at Vanderbilt University. He tweets at @orsoraggiante.