In a move unheard of in modern publishing, two of Penguin’s well-known authors Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma have asked the publisher to cancel their contracts and pulp their books too in protest against Penguin’s withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History published in 2009.
With these two writers taking such a stand, it is believed that many other writers who see themselves as modern liberals are likely to follow suit. Penguin has an enviable stable of non-fiction writers, including Arundhati Roy, Ramchandra Guha, Romila Thapar, all three of whom have protested against Penguin’s “cowardly” move.
In a related development, intellectuals, including Thapar, emerging writer Ananya Vajpeyi (author of Righteous Republic) and professors from universities across the world have signed a petition to the law minister and all MPs, demanding a relook at sections 153A and 295A of the IPC which governs intellectual and artistic freedom. These were the Acts quoted by Penguin in defence of their decision to pulp Doniger’s book.
“We ask that lawmakers, jurists and the legal bureaucracy include necessary provisions in these laws to protect works of serious academic and artistic merit from motivated, malicious and frivolous litigation,” the petition said.
Sharma, professor of political science at University of Hyderabad, has in his letter asked Penguin to pulp his books within the next 24 hours. Sharma has published two books with the publisher — Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism and Terrifying Vision: MS Golwalkar, the RSS and India.
“Everyone seems to be screaming about the shrinking space of liberal values in India, but no one wants to give up anything to fight for it,” Sharma told dna. Penguin’s decision, he said, is slap to the Indian judiciary that has, by and large, upheld the principles of freedom of speech and expression. “How could Penguin assume that the courts would give a regressive judgment?”
Varadarajan, on his part, said he no longer has confidence in Penguin’s ability to stand up to pressure by motivated groups. “The decision doesn’t make any commercial sense either. Why would you cower down to pressure at the first obstacle when you are in the business of publishing and books?” he told dna. Penguin had published his book Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy in 2002. In a letter to the publisher, Varadarajan has stated that he would like the copyright for the book reverted to him so that he may freely distribute it electronically “without the fear of any future, arbitrary withdrawal by Penguin in the face of pressure from the sort of intellectual bullies who have managed to have their way with Prof Doniger’s book”.
Penguin may have settled the issue of hurt “Hindu” sentiments in an out-of-court deal, but the matter seems to be following the publisher. The first day of the World Book Fair at New Delhi saw two protests centred on Doniger’s book. One, from students and professors at Delhi University, who read out excerpts from The Hindus outside Penguin’s pavillion at the fair. And, the other, from a motley group of citizens worried about the “unrelenting attack” on Hindu religion and culture.
The protests started on a peaceful note with one group reading passages from various books of Premchand, Orhan Pamuk and Doniger to celebrate the “right to read”, as the other group held up banners that read: “Don’t Insult Hindu Lords” and “No Freedom for Hate Speech”.