Penguin Books India pulls controversial book on Hinduism

Penguin Books India agreed to withdraw the book from circulation in India as well as destroy every copy of the book.

'The Hindus: an Alternative History' is by Wendy Doniger.

We’ve seen the chilling effects – in China, Russia, and America, among scores of other countries – when politics and publishing collide. 

The latest country to join the censorship bandwagon is India, where publisher Penguin Books India recently agreed to withdraw a book about Hinduism from circulation in India, including destroying all copies of the book currently in the country. 

“The Hindus: An Alternative History,” by Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, was pulled by Penguin Books India after a four-year legal battle that began when the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a suit against the publisher in 2011, claiming the book disparaged Hinduism and comprised “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”

The lawsuit accuses Doniger of “hurt[ing] the feelings of millions of Hindus” in the book, which it calls “a shallow, distorted and non-serious presentation of Hinduism” which is “riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies.”

In a statement released by PEN Delhi, Doniger said, “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.” 

The decision, not surprisingly, has drawn international outrage from writers including Arundhati Roy, William Dalrymple, Neil Gaiman, and Hari Kunzru, as well as organizations like the National Book Critics Circle and the global community of writers PEN International. 

In an open letter published in The Times of India, Man Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy blasted the publisher, writing, "[Y]ou have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, 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 settlement. Why?"

In a statement, Penguin Books India has defended its decision: “Penguin Books India believes, and has always believed, in every individual's right to freedom of thought and expression, a right explicitly codified in the Indian Constitution. This commitment informs Penguin's approach to publishing in every territory of the world, and we have never been shy about testing that commitment in court when appropriate. At the same time, a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organization to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.”

More specifically, “those laws” refer to section 295a of the Indian penal code, which prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

As observers have pointed out, the law also makes it difficult for Indian publishers to uphold international standards of free expression.

Perhaps the more chilling point is that “The Hindus” – which, we should add, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle’s prestigious non-fiction award in 2009 – is only the latest in a series of publications recently withdrawn in the face of protest.

“The recall of ‘The Hindus' made Penguin the second Indian publishing house and third liberal institution in recent times to capitulate to a Hindu group,” writes Bloomberg. “In 2008, Oxford University Press agreed to cease publication of a scholarly essay on the Ramayana, and in 2011, Delhi University agreed to take the same essay off its syllabus.”

There’s more: In January, Bloomsbury India removed copies of “The Descent of Air India,” against the author’s wishes, and published an apology to a government minister who was strongly criticized in the book, the NYT notes.

It adds, “In December, the Supreme Court granted a stay of publication of 'Sahara: The Untold Story,' an investigation of Indian finance and real estate conglomerate Sahara India Pariwar, until a lawsuit filed by Sahara Group’s head was resolved.”

The latest book ban underscores an alarming trend in Indian intellectual discourse: that writings that offend any person’s religious sentiment, or as the lawsuit put it, “hurts the religious feelings,” will be curtailed, and with it, freedom of speech.

The fight against the book coincides with a potential ideological shift in India, which, three months ahead of a national election, has increasingly seen right-wing Hindu nationalist groups shore up power in the world’s largest democracy. Though the pulling of the book has no direct relationship to the elections, some observers have noted a rise in the influence of right-wing Hindu nationalists like Dinath Batra, the 84-year-old retired headmaster who spearheaded the campaign against Penguin and Doniger’s “The Hindus.”

Wrote novelist Hari Kunzru in the UK’s Guardian, “The Hindu far right … has become expert in wielding the weapon of offense to silence critics.”

In fact, many authors who criticized Penguin Books India’s decision directed their censure not toward the publisher, but at the antiquated laws and political campaigns against such books.

“Indian publishers have faced waves of threats from litigants, vigilante groups, and politicians,” PEN India pointed out.

Doniger herself has said she doesn’t “blame” Penguin, which after years of defending the book in court, was “finally defeated by the true villain of this piece – the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence 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.” 

Echoes historian Dalrymple, The "real villains are the laws in this country, which were old colonial laws drawn up in the 1890s, and which make insulting religion a criminal offense…The reality is that it is very difficult to defend yourself because the law is stacked very heavily on the side of any lunatic. It's shocking, appalling, dreadful and entirely negative, but I can understand why Penguin did what it did. They should have defended it, but I can understand why, with the law as it is, they decided they couldn't win the case.”

Amidst the furor, there may be a silver lining after all: the ruckus has sent “The Hindus” skyrocketing up bestseller lists, and perhaps more importantly, has brought international attention to the wave of book bans in India, and with it, renewed pressure against the forces behind the suppression.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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