In Conversation: Wendy Doniger

‘Fight words with words’

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Wendy Doniger. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book that had to be pulped. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

WENDY DONIGER, well-known Indologist and Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, was at the receiving end of the Sangh Parivar’s intimidation tactics when her book published by Penguin India was pulped after a legal case brought by the self-proclaimed educationist Dinanath Batra. Here, she weighs in on the attack on Meera Nanda and traces a familiar pattern of intimidation perfected by right-wing Hindus in Western academia.

“I was appalled to learn of the recent concerted attacks on Meera Nanda, one of the leading world experts on the history of science in India. Hers is one of the most respected of the many voices, in India and throughout the world, that have been raised in shocked protest against the stunningly unscientific statements about Indian science that have been made by Prime Minister Narenda Modi and members of his government. I recognise the nasty, unbridled, vicious tone of these attacks, having been subjected to them myself after the publication of my book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in India in 2010. In addition to a lawsuit, I was bombarded with violent, often obscene emails, and mass emails were sent to my colleagues both in the broader South Asian studies community and at my own institution, the University of Chicago. A similar plan of attack has been aimed at Professor Nanda, apparently the first time that this sort of American email campaign has been used in India.

What can we do to counteract such attacks? Fight words with words. They are telling their story; we must go on telling our story. My own initial shock at being subjected to such scurrilous attacks led to self-doubt; what had I done wrong to inspire such ugly hatred? But I was saved by the great flood of emails and published articles from Indians, both academics and people from the broader community, thanking me for what I had written, agreeing with my presentation of the evidence, urging me to continue. We need to support Meera Nanda in this way too, to speak out in protest not only against the lies that are being told about her but about the lies that are being told about Indian science. There is a danger that these intimidation tactics may discourage serious academic pursuits in the field of Indology, may make publishers nervous of publishing books critical of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and prevent honest scholars from writing on such topics. For this part of the battle, we need brave publishers. I was lucky enough to find such a publisher, who found ways to keep my book The Hindus available in India (now in Tamil and Telugu as well as English) and to publish two more of my books. My academic institution, too, and the broader academic world of South Asian studies stood behind me and spoke out about free speech and about my worth as a colleague. We need to make sure that Meera Nanda gets this kind of support, from the press, from her academic institutions, and from the broader reading public. Her fight is our fight too.”

As told to Divya Trivedi