My book deals with the sustained campaign against scholars, artists, historians, and writers who have challenged the orthodox view of Hinduism. These campaigners had one of their biggest victories last week when Penguin Books India decided to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, because the critics did not like her interpretation of Hinduism, as you can see here in a piece by Rajiv Malhotra, here Aditi Banerjee writes in Outlook, and here again, and in this petition itself.
As Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about offence famously said, it is very easy not to be offended by a book.
Wendy Doniger Rick Friedman/Corbis
Here are three of my pieces and a TV appearance defending Doniger’s right to write, regardless of it being “right” or “wrong”.
In Mint on the day it happened.
In Mint again, the following day.
And in the Wall Street Journal:
My TV appearance on NDTV is here.
Full Text of the pieces:
1. Penguin’s Disappointing Surrender (Mint)
A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’
This is not a ban; it is surrender. There is no nicer way to put it. Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel and agreed to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s award-winning, scholarly, entertaining, and authoritative book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, and to destroy remaining copies within six months.
Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Penguin’s decision is unlikely to be based on literary merit—the book has been on sale in India since 2009 and those who wanted to, have already bought it. Now more will try to buy it through fair means or foul. And Penguin’s decision is possibly made out of expediency—perhaps to cut costs, perhaps to avoid trouble, or perhaps out of concern for the safety of its staff. None of this reflects well on Penguin or on India.
Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti had filed a suit in 2011, seeking the withdrawal of the book, saying the book was written with “a Christian missionary’s zeal” to denigrate Hinduism and show it in a poor light. For the record, Doniger is not a Christian, and even if she were that would be irrelevant—and yet in any case, Hindu nationalists have rarely let facts get in the way of their theories.
Also for the record, when the book came out in 2009, I had asked Doniger about the rise of the more militant brand of Hinduism, which has led to attacks on the works of overseas scholars, including Michael Witzel of Harvard, James Laine who wrote a book on Shivaji, and Paul Courtright who wrote one on Ganesha, and homegrown ones, like D.N. Jha, who wrote that Hindus do eat beef and there’s no religious stricture against it.
Doniger told me then that she had written her book to clear some misunderstandings about Hinduism, and “to counteract the Hindutva misinterpretations of the Ramayana.”
Last night I asked Doniger what she thought about her publisher’s decision. Deeply concerned, she told me: “Penguin has indeed given up the lawsuit, and will no longer publish the book. Of course, anyone with a computer can get the Kindle edition from Penguin, NY, and it’s probably cheaper, too. It is simply no longer possible to ban books in the age of the Internet. For that, and for all the people who have expressed outrage over this, I am deeply grateful.”
I also asked Penguin for its response. At the time of writing, Chiki Sarkar, Penguin’s publisher, had not replied.
A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Recalling that episode, Penguin’s chief executive in London, Peter Mayer, wrote in 2009: “When we decided to continue publishing the novel, extraordinary pressures were focused on our company, based on fears for the author’s life and for the lives of everyone at Penguin around the world… 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.”
In my 2009 interview with Doniger which appeared in Tehelka, she traced her interest in Hinduism to her study of ancient languages, Latin and Greek, when she also discovered Sanskrit; and later she saw rubbings from Angkor Wat in Cambodia that her mother had. “I loved Indian painting and sculpture, and architecture and clothing—you could wear purple and orange together, which no one would let me do when I dressed in western clothing—and music (she learnt sarod from Ali Akbar Khan in Calcutta),” she told me.
What had she learnt from Hinduism? Doniger had told me: “I have learnt so much, where to begin! I’ve learnt so much about dealing with the darker side of life, with death, with violence, which I think Hindu mythology and theology deals with in a manner infinitely more realistic and profound than the Western monotheisms do. I’ve learnt a lot about animals, about ways of thinking about them and living with them. I’ve learnt to appreciate chaos and the unexpected, in ways that were hard for me to deal with when I was younger.”
Those who disagreed with Doniger had options—to protest, to argue, to publish their own book as response, and if they had a copy, to shut it. Nobody is being forced to read it. Now, go to your electronic readers, buy it, download it, read it; if you go abroad, get copies—there’s no ban on its import; and reinforce the idea that a pluralistic India does not have singular views. India thrives in its diversity and plurality—its culture and its opinions.
As freedom of expression itself is under threat, and India undergoes its own period of darkness and chaos, Doniger’s philosophical equanimity offers hope, that this, too, shall pass. It must, otherwise it is another country.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
A Book Censor’s Paradise (Mint)
The number of books withdrawn from circulation has grown disturbingly large. This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind
Two of the biggest impacts of the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini declared on Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses 25 years ago this Friday were the chill it cast on authors who might wish to take on controversial subjects in future, and the disease of competitive intolerance that it spread among people belonging to other religions and interest groups—why couldn’t they get something banned, or disappear, from the public space? And that phenomenon manifested in all its glory earlier this week, when Penguin India, ironically the publisher of Rushdie at that time, decided to withdraw and pulp the remaining copies of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.
When Rushdie was launching his memoir Joseph Anton at a bookstore in downtown New York in 2011, someone from the audience asked him—knowing what he knew now about the reaction that the publication of The Satanic Verses had evoked, would he still write the novel today? Rushdie reflected momentarily over the question, and said it wasn’t an easy question to answer. He had written the novel at a particular time, not knowing what was to follow. He did not choose to live the life that followed. Knowing Rushdie’s work and commitment to free expression, I wasn’t surprised when he told me, when I asked him about it earlier this week, that he hoped and believed he would write the same book today.
So would Doniger, who developed an abiding interest in Hinduism decades ago. But in the next edition of her book, she might scrutinize more what happened to some followers of Hinduism that they abandoned the faith’s proclaimed tenets of tolerance, and embraced the intolerant strains of other faiths, compared to which their own faith, they claimed, was superior. Or at least different from the monotheistic religions where notions like blasphemy were tossed around to silence opponents. That is a political question, and the ease with which the Indian state acquiesced to the loud mobs that shout “we are offended!” has only made it easier for obscure groups to turn to courts. And these courts, all too willingly, admit petitions drawn from Victorian-era sections of the penal code, such as 153A and 295A, which give a licence to anyone to complain that his or her feelings are hurt, that communal harmony may get disrupted, that hatred is being incited.
But no book razed a mosque; no books entered a railway station or five-star hotels and killed people; no book blew up crowded bazaars; no book looked the other way when crowds extracted revenge on other communities over real or imagined wrongs. People did that; and those people have rarely been brought to courts to face charges. Instead, the author is asked to narrow her imagination, or to swallow his words. This is the infantilization of India.
Rushdie may indeed write the same novel today, and continue to stir our imagination and provoke our minds with inspiring fiction, and Doniger may reflect more deeply on Hindu myths, traditions, customs, and philosophy, and reward her readers with her profound thinking. It is difficult to know if publishers will stand up to the test that the mob represents. In the past few years, under the threat of litigation, violence from vigilantes, or perceived insults, the number of books withdrawn from circulation, or not distributed in India at all, has grown disturbingly large.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned was published without one chapter; my Mint colleague Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s book on the Sahara group faces a stay order and a lawsuit; Bloomsbury has withdrawn Jitender Bhargava’s book on Air India; the former Left front government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasrin’s Dwikhandito; Narendra Modi’s administration banned Jaswant Singh’s book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (a court later lifted the ban) and Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi; and Sonia Gandhi’s lawyers have threatened to sue if Javier Moro’s novelized version of her life, The Red Saree, is released in India. This is only a small sample, but shows that no political party is immune from the charge of being hostile to books it doesn’t like, and none is committed to unbridled freedom of expression.
This will only lead to the shrinking of the Indian mind. We are clearly not there yet, but the dystopian scenario is not far when we live in a society where books become the objects of the décor of an apartment, chosen because of their spines match the colour scheme on the wall; where books are designed to fit the size of a modern coffee table; where they contain recipes to feed the body; where the stock tips in the book promise to make us rich; where the hagiographies of powerful men and women tell fairytales, and create new icons for a mercantilist, unthinking nation; where textbooks narrate the version of history that the ruler approves. Into that arid hell, as Tagore would rue, India has woken.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-
3. India and the Penguin Problem (The Wall Street Journal)
The publisher’s withdrawal of a book bespeaks broader threats to free speech
Penguin Books’ Indian unit announced it was withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s massive 2009 tome “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” which was published in India in 2011. Ms. Doniger, a professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, is a world-renowned academic authority on Hinduism. Her book offers a light-toned personal interpretation of the faith, its myths, and its use of symbols—admittedly not always in line with orthodox Hindu interpretation.
The book was controversial from the start. Some offended Hindus wrote spirited rebuttals. Others signed petitions criticizing the book. One aggrieved group, the Committee to Campaign to Protect Education, sent Penguin a legal notice, saying the book should be withdrawn because it offended Hindu sentiments, particularly in the way in which Ms. Doniger allegedly offered a sex-based interpretation of certain texts.
Penguin fought the case for four years, but capitulated in the end in a settlement before any court ruling. Penguin has not shied away from controversy in the past. The publisher kept Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in print world-wide even after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa in 1989 against it, and in an earlier generation stood trial under British obscenity laws for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” But in this case, executives apparently decided they couldn’t risk running against Indian law “however intolerant and restrictive” it may be, as the company said in its statement.
That statement singled out S.295A, a colonial-era provision in the penal law that makes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious believes” punishable with imprisonment or fines or both, making it “increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” The company also noted it was morally responsible for the safety of its staff, a telling remark about which more later.
Illustrating the bind in which many publishers in India find themselves, Penguin’s concession to opponents of free speech was greeted by outrage among proponents of free speech. Two other authors on the publisher’s list, Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan, publicly asked Penguin to pulp their books and instead revert the rights back to them so they could find alternative publishers.
Both have reason to worry they could be censorship targets too. Mr. Sharma has written books critical of Hindu nationalism and Mr. Varadarajan has written a book that criticizes the handling of 2002 Gujarat massacres by Narendra Modi, the state’s chief minister and now a leading contender to be the next prime minister at the helm of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Publishers are left to navigate these shoals as best they can, and it’s more art than science. In 2011, Oxford University Press withdrew editions which carried the late poet A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” after Hindu nationalist groups objected to the essay being part of a reading list at Delhi University. Following an outcry, OUP said it would republish the essay and other works of Ramanujan.
But the real problem, as hinted at by Penguin’s remark about the safety of its staff, is that publishers too often don’t enjoy sufficient legal protections for their work. Not only is the law as it stands too friendly to groups of any stripe that want to gin up dudgeon over controversial works (and also too friendly to businesses or individuals who want to claim that any unflattering coverage is defamatory). But the authorities too often fail miserably at the basic policing that would ensure protests over books remain peaceful.
Penguin surely had in mind the fact that Hindu nationalist groups’ protests have not always been non-violent. Over the past two decades, they have vandalized art galleries that show the works of Indian artists like the late M.F. Husain, and more recently, Pakistani artists. They’ve threatened cinema halls showing films they disapprove of. And the list of incidents goes on. Any publisher courting controversy must bear in mind the physical risks of doing so.
While the police and other authorities are so often derelict in their basic responsibility to maintain public order, Indian law tries to shift the blame for these protests onto the protestees, even though a Supreme Court judgment from 1989 explicitly asks the authorities to protect free speech. Another colonial-era law, S. 153A, empowers the state to prosecute anyone committing an act prejudicial to maintaining harmony—which can be construed to include publishing books that stir up violent protests and not merely those who directly incite others to violence.
Given this background, Penguin’s pragmatism is understandable—indeed, Ms. Doniger, in her statement, doesn’t blame her publisher, but the law. Not only would the publisher have good reason to worry about the safety of its staff if protests were to escalate and the police to demonstrate their customary lack of interest. Publishers also must balance their desire to challenge unjust laws on the one hand with their responsibility to their shareholders to act lawfully in the places where they do business on the other.
Hindu nationalists have every right to voice objections to works they find offensive, and even to do so by gathering peacefully in the streets if they want. But the state fails when it can’t ensure basic security during such protests, and even more so when it tilts the legal balance against free speech.
Indian laws serve Indian democracy poorly—stifling debate, preventing inquiry, smothering imagination, and closing the Indian mind. If there’s one lesson from the latest Penguin affair, it’s that it’s time for New Delhi to stop treating a nation of a billion people as infants who should be protected from controversial thoughts.
Mr. Tripathi, a former board member of English PEN, is the author of “Offence: The Hindu Case” (Seagull 2009).