The HindusThis week, Penguin India agreed to withdraw and destroy all existing copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger within six months. They did so after Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (an influential right wing Hindutva group), brought a court case complaining to them that the book contains heresies that insult Hindus. Penguin reached an out of court settlement with them this month, the text of which is here.

I read The Hindus while travelling around my state of Karnataka in 2009 when it was first published. It is a doorstopper of a book but its space in my backpack was well worth it. The book covers centuries of Hindu thought and practice, from the Indus Valley civilisation onwards, focusing particularly on uncovering and making visibility the voices and contributions of women, Dalits and marginalised traditions that have been oppressed, silenced and subordinated by Brahmanical patriarchy. It is a comprehensive account, notable for its readability, that expands the horizons of Hindu scholarship beyond that of the Vedanta to examine the diversity and plurality of the belief systems that were first put under the umbrella of Hinduism by the British colonisers.

Causing religious offence should not be the rationale for infringing freedom of expression and destroying books. Notwithstanding this, I want to emphasise the point that the book is not offensive to Hindus – except if you consider Hinduism to be only the narrow set of beliefs promulgated by the religious right.

That Hindu extremists have succeeded in threatening its publishers to withdraw publication is a serious blow to freedom of expression and to freedom of belief and puts ability to critique and dissent from dominant views at further risk.

The decision comes at a time where the Hindu nationalist project is at its zenith. Their purpose is to cast India as the site of a particular monocultural unchanging Brahmanical Hindu identity which posits anyone who deviates from this as outsiders or influenced by foreign agents. The narrative is that the Muslim invaders should go to Pakistan (they have their country, why can’t we have ours?), women are and should be subordinate to men and all queer people have been infected by Western thinking and practice. This ignores the realities and diversity of those who have lived and thought in the place that is now called India across the generations and traditions. The Hindutva are actively contesting and trying to limit the space for those of different religions, alternate sexual orientations or gender identities and different interpretations of Hinduism.

After all, those in power use not only physical force but also erasure of alternative interpretations and modes of being and silencing of those who subvert, critique and dissent to ensure their version of history and religion prevails. 

The decision has caused a lot of controversy and protest in India.

Academics have signed a statement calling the decision ‘an early salvo in the renewed campaign to drown all questioning voices and prepare the ground for a full-fledged chauvinistic and communal presentation of our history and culture.’

Anmol Vellani of the Indian Foundation for the Arts has started a campaign encouraging people to post their favourite books to Penguin, asking for it too to be destroyed.

Arundhati Roy wrote to Penguin, her publishers, saying ‘you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit’ and hinting she would think twice before going to them with future work. Authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan have asked Penguin to nullify their contracts and withdraw and destroy their books too in solidarity and protest. Ms Sharma said “I am a writer. I want to be published. But we have to do this to save the liberal space.

Wendy Doniger released a statement on Facebook saying:

I was thrilled and moved by the great number of messages of support that I received, not merely from friends and colleagues but from people in India that I have never met, who had read and loved The Hindus, and by news and media people, all of whom expressed their outrage and sadness and their wish to help me in any way they could. I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.

They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book. An example at random, from the lawsuit in question:‘ That YOU NOTICEE has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction. “Placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times……….” (P.662) This breaches section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Finally, I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book. The Hindus is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.”

Penguin was also the publisher behind Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses which caused its own controversy on publication.

Peter Mayer, its chief executive wrote in 2009 that ‘The elimination of divergent points of view is incompatible with the basic tenets of free societies. We chose to frame the argument as one not only respecting the central importance of free speech, but transcending the case of this one book. The fate of the book affected the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.’

Given this stance 25 years ago, why did that same publisher take a different position this time? Was it to avoid the furore that happened before? Is it a broader indication of where we stand now as opposed to then when it comes to freedom of speech?

As Kafila points out, Penguin has given up its country rights in India and the author is now able to circulate it in India. Of course the internet knows no national borders. The book has been put up to download for free in both epub and PDF versions.
UPDATE 17/02/2014: Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarti Sethi have now served a legal notice on Penguin (with lawyer Lawrence Liang acting) for violation of freedom of speech and expression and violation of the rights of readers. Read more at Kafila.