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Penguin India has caved in to the nationalists

Publisher's agreement to pulp a book is a threat to free expression

  • Ivan Fernandes, Hyderabad
  • India
  • February 24, 2014
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I haven’t written a book yet but if I had and it was published by Penguin India, I would ask that it be pulled from stores and all copies in stock pulped.

That is exactly what two authors published by Penguin India are currently demanding. The country's most prestigious publishing house has galled many Indians like me who see the proverbial writing on the wall for that major component in any civilized, democratic society called freedom of expression.

Earlier this month Penguin India chose to withdraw and pulp all copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History from circulation. Till then not many would have known about Doniger, an erudite Indologist and History of Religions professor at the University of Chicago.

Even less would have heard of the nondescript Hindu nationalist Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (or Save Education Campaign Committee) operating out of a middle-class locality in New Delhi and headed by Dinanath Batra, an 84-year-old retired schoolteacher who campaigns for the removal of “objectionable portions” from history university syllabuses and school textbooks.

Yet Penguin India felt browbeaten and bullied by Batra who said Doniger’s research violated Indian law. 

As Man Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy asked, “You must tell us what terrified you… What are we to make of this?” 

We all know in our hearts the answer Penguin is too “chicken” to admit.  But more, we need Penguin to make a stand before it becomes customary to line up, raise our right hand, salute, please and appease.

It has happened before elsewhere, when people in brown uniforms burnt books that they thought remotely upset the party and their Führer’s rabid dreams of what the country should be.

In India’s case though, the burning has come a bit earlier. We experienced it in Gujarat where chief minister Narendra Modi allowed Muslims to be butchered and burned in the thousands, pogrom style.

A general election is soon to be called and if opinion polls have it correct, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Modi as its prime ministerial candidate is set to sweep to victory.

The BJP and Modi see India as primarily a Hindu state, espousing a brand of fundamentalism that stifles liberal thinking through intimidation and violence. Hence the sense of betrayal at what Penguin did.

As Siddharth Varadarajan, an author asking Penguin to pulp his book writes:  "I no longer have the confidence that Penguin will stand by my book, Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy – published by you in 2002 — in the event that some group or individual should decide to demand that it be withdrawn because they feel it violates 295 [section of the Indian Penal Code]."

Penguin belatedly cited this section of the law, which makes it a crime to deliberately and maliciously outrage religious feelings or insult a religion or religious beliefs, claiming like a recalcitrant schoolboy, that it chose to pulp Doniger’s book to respect the laws of the land.

It is not as if Penguin did not do its homework before publishing. It knew what the book entailed.

Doniger wrote that she incorporated the narratives of and about alternative people — people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or gender.

“Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs [oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables] — did actually contribute to Hinduism,” she said.

Doniger pointed out that Penguin India had defended the book in the courts for four years but only now felt bound to adhere to an Indian law that makes it criminal to publish what offends any Hindu “no matter how ludicrous the accusation”.

The readers who are suing Penguin say that by succumbing to Batra it is conveniently choosing to acknowledge the claims and allegations of one particular class of readers who claim that their religious sentiments have been hurt while ignoring the rights of many others who have found the book insightful.

Batra, like an unmentioned propaganda minister of old, has set up 20 core committees across northern India to keep Indian cultural and spiritual heritage pure.

“Wherever it is found to disrespect the sentiments or distort facts, we will agitate at state level and pursue legal action. We have won the battle, we will win the war,” he said.

Commenting, Malarvizhi Jayanth, a researcher on South Asia, said:  “Doniger’s scholarship undoes the Hindu right’s lies about our past … The Hindu right includes political parties, academics, businessmen and large numbers of Indians who believe in a mythical golden past, including those who believe in it enough to participate in the genocide of their fellow citizens.” 

Penguin India should have made a stand on principle at least on behalf of India's reading public, regardless of political pressure or fear of future retribution. But if this is the way a big publishing house can be browbeaten, it does not augur well for freedom of expression in India.

Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Hyderabad

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