Karl Marx propounded in the nineteenth century that religion is the opium of the masses. The 21st century India still displays Marx’s contention the best. Well-known publisher Penguin India, under pressure from a self-proclaimed rights group, recently decided to withdraw all copies of a book that presents an unorthodox view of Hinduism. Written by celebrated American scholar Wendy Doniger, the book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’, had been the subject of a legal challenge which claimed the text was offensive to Hindus.
The Shiksha Bachao Andolan had brought a civil case in 2011 against Penguin India arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus, containing what they described as “heresies”. The group’s president, Dina Nath Batra, had told news agencies that the book was focused on “sex and eroticism”.
This, it contended, violates a section of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. It started an online campaign seeking the book’s withdrawal; more than 10,000 people had also signed the petition online, claiming the text was filled with factual inaccuracies.
This happened in a country known not to tolerate a different view of its religion. In 2012, Salman Rushdie was prevented from speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival after threats from Muslim groups and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi sought to stop the publication of an unauthorized biography, the Red Sari, by Javier Moro. The late MF Husain, then India’s leading artist, was also forced to live in exile after he was charged with offending the “religious sentiments” of Hindus with a series of paintings showing Hindu gods in sexually suggestive poses. He died at age 95 in London, where he was buried in exile.
It is important to note that the development comes uncomfortably close on the heels of reports last month that Bloomsbury India was withdrawing another allegedly offending tome. According to the media, the publishing house withdrew ‘The Descent of Air India’ by Jitender Bhargava, after a defamation lawsuit was filed by former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, whom the book holds responsible for the airline’s financial losses. The publisher issued a public apology to Patel, who is currently Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. Bhargava, however, stands by his book.
Coming back to Doniger, India’s dismayed intelligentsia immediately was abuzz with criticism about Penguin India’s move on social media. The first reaction came from the author herself: she issued a statement on Facebook, saying she was deeply angered and concerned for freedom of speech in India. “The true villain of this piece,” she said, “is the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”
Historians and politicians were also quick in their response. Writers and commentators said the decision was the latest in a long series of attempts by political groups to censor artistes and voiced concerns that freedom of expression is under increasing threat. Historian Ramachandra Guha called the decision “deeply disappointing” on Twitter, describing Doniger among the finest scholars of India’s religion and culture.
Journalist and political commentator Swapan Dasgupta commented, “Very uneasy about Penguin decision on Wendy Doniger book. Ideas & academic studies, however contentious, cannot be handled by censorship.” Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh called Shiksha Bachao Andolan “some Taliban-type outfit” that is “distorting and destroying our liberal traditions”.
Author and activist Arundhati Roy also fiercely criticized Penguin, incidentally her own publisher, after it withdrew the book which she said offended “Hindu fanatics”. Roy, who won the Booker Prize for her 1996 novel ‘The God of Small Things’, hinted she may drop Penguin over its decision. “Even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing a settlement. Why?” she asked.
Under fire, Penguin defended its decision, saying it remained committed to every individual’s right to freedom of thought and expression and “we have never been shy about testing that commitment in court when appropriate”. “We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can,” Penguin India said, acknowledging in hidden words that it had received threats.
Flagging the problems arising out of certain laws, Penguin said: “The IPC, and in particular Section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” The publisher said the settlement was reached after a four-year legal process “in which Penguin defended the publication of the Indian edition”.
However, this fury online only seems to have benefited the book. Not only did people express their opinion about it on social networking sites, they started sharing links from where the full text of the book could be downloaded. The website, downloadthehindus, provides the pdf attachment, Torrent link and the Amazon link from where the book can be downloaded.
This comic turn of events should not prevent us from looking at the tragic part of it. It represents the collapse of our politico-intellectual space at a time when we look forward to electing a modern, predevelopment government.