NEW DELHI — In India, a decision by publishing house Penguin to withdraw a book on Hinduism by an American scholar has been slammed by literary and academic circles. While worries are being expressed about cultural intolerance, the publisher has blamed Indian law for its decision.
The promotional material for Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, calls it a new way of understanding one of the world’s oldest religions. Doniger is a well-known U.S.-based scholar of religion.
But Dina Nath Batra of the conservative Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement) finds the book vulgar and offensive. He launched a legal battle against it four years ago saying it demeans Hindu gods and national icons.
Batra questions Doniger’s intentions and accuses her of hurting the religious feelings of millions of Hindus. He said the book is full of historical inaccuracies.
In an out-of-court settlement this week, Penguin Books India agreed to withdraw the book from India and pulp remaining copies.
The decision raised an outcry in literary and academic circles where the agreement was called an attack on free expression.
Bangalore-based author Vikram Sampath said Penguin’s decision will discourage a lot of authors handling two subjects that have become “holy cows” in India: history and religion.
“What is it that we can put in years and years of our hard work and research into and then realize that one day the publisher himself or herself abandons you in the wilderness?" Sampath asked. "There is an increasing trend of intolerance towards works of art and books and films where there is a very rude minority which is determining what needs to be written and told and screened and so on."
Author Vikram Sampath himself has been at the receiving end of intimidation by conservative groups. He says he has been shouted down during lectures and his effigy burned by those angered by his writings on an Indian historical figure, Tipu Sultan.
Under attack from prominent authors about “caving in” to a fringe group, Penguin pointed to an Indian law that makes it a criminal offense to offend the sensibilities of a religion.
In a statement, the publisher said it was obliged to respect the law of the land where it operates however "restrictive and intolerant" it maybe. Penguin said this law will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression. Wendy Doniger also called the law the "villain of the piece.”
While Dina Nath Batra resorted to the courts to have the book withdrawn, fundamentalist groups - both Hindu and Muslim - have been using other tactics to protest works of art they find objectionable.
Salman Rushdie’s prize-winning book The Satanic Verses was banned following violent protests by Muslim groups. In 2012 he was prevented from even speaking at a literature festival in Jaipur. The late Indian artist M.F. Husain was forced to leave India and live overseas after Hindu groups angry with his depiction of Indian gods filed a number of court cases against him.
Gujarat state has banned Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi after some reviews said the book implied that Gandhi had a homosexual relationship.
Authors and academics call this a worrying trend, saying such attacks are shrinking the space for alternative viewpoints and artistic freedom.
"I don’t think it is really offensive," said Kumkum Roy, a professor of ancient history at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has reviewed Doniger’s book.
"There are differences of emphasis, there are some omissions which could have been addressed, but none of these can justify a withdrawal of the book. And the other things are matters of perspective, where I would acknowledge that there can be differences," she opined.
"Unless we have a public discussion about differences, it can be an absolutely stifling atmosphere for the academics and it will kill the academic atmosphere in the country."
Roy said she is heartened by the outcry over the book’s withdrawal in literary and academic circles as well as in mainstream and social media.
But Hindu groups like the Shiksha Bachao Andolan are unfazed by that outcry.
Dina Nath Batra vows to wage more such campaigns against books that he says offend Hindus or contain historical inaccuracies. He said he next plans to target another one of Doniger’s books on Hinduism. "We have won the battle, we have to win the war. It is a fight for my life,” he stated.
Authors and writers like Vikram Sampath are equally adamant that they will not be circumscribed within the walls of what offends and what does not. He says it is important for the literary community to unite and stand up against such censorship, because tomorrow it could be “me."