The tale of Penguin India agreeing to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History got a twist on Friday with the publishing house getting a legal notice by Advocate Lawrence Liang of the Bangalore-based Alternate Law Forum on behalf of two Delhi residents — artist and writer Suddhabrata Sengupta, and PhD scholar of anthropology at Columbia University Aarti Sethi.
The notice describes Penguin choosing "to withdraw the publication and circulation of The Hindus despite the fact that there is no court order that mandates such withdrawal" as "shocking and in absolute contravention of your responsibilities as a publisher" and "extra judicial killing of books and authors". It further goes on to say that "In effect you have withdrawn the book on the basis of a legal threat thereby granting unauthorised groups and individuals the right to censor books."
The notice also cities previous instances of Penguin India giving into pressure over books that have rubbed some people the wrong way such as a biography of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, after she got an injunction against the book, a judgement the publisher "chose not to appeal" and "allowed the book to vanish instead".
Making a case for Penguin India's actions going against the public interest, the notice also contested a claim that a statement from Penguin India — its first public message since the controversy broke on Tuesday — that "the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A", made "it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression". Agreeing to the need to reform the law, Sengupta and Sethi contended that "the only way in which that can happen is for publishers like yourself to take the legal battle to its logical end".
The notice asks Penguin India to rescind its agreement with Dina Nath Batra's Shiksha Bacho Andolan and start publishing Doniger's book, and demands that, if it does not do this, should give up its rights as owners of the copyright and allow the book to go under "general public license which will enable any person to copy, reproduce and circulate it whether in print or electronically within the territory of India".
Earlier in the day, Penguin India's statement reaffirmed its belief in "freedom of thought and expression" and said that while it had "never been shy about testing that commitment in court", it had obligations as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land, however "intolerant and restrictive" and a "moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment". It said that it stood by its "original decision to publish The Hindus", as also "other books that we know may cause offence to some segments of our readership".