Wendy Doniger

In their bad books

Print edition : March 07, 2014

Wendy Doniger.

Penguin's stall at the World Book Fair in New Delhi. A file picture. Photo: AFP

Penguin withdraws Wendy Doniger’s book on an alternative history of Hinduism bowing to pressure from right-wing forces.

NO one had an idea about Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS, or Save Education Campaign Committee) operating out of a middle-class locality in New Delhi.

Few had even heard of Dinanath Batra, the 84-year-old retired schoolteacher, who was instrumental in getting A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “300 Ramanayas” withdrawn from Delhi University’s history syllabus in 2008. Neither was his role in the censure of 75 “objectionable portions” in various National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks for school curriculum known to many.

Not many people were aware of the fact that Wendy Doniger, an Indologist and the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago with two doctorates in Sanskrit (Harvard) and Indian Studies (Oxford), had spent years comprehending, translating and propagating Sanskrit texts that kindled creative debates on the history of Hindu traditions.

Until February 4.

Something changed dramatically on that day when Penguin, a respectable publishing house, entered into an “amicable settlement” with the SBAS in a civil suit filed by Batra in 2011 and agreed to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s classic tome on Hinduism, The Hindus: An Alternative History, even before the Additional District Judge of Saket, Balwant Rai Bansal, pronounced a judgment on the matter. (Incidentally, the book was blocked on the Web too.)

Penguin’s spectacular surrender to Batra saw liberal voices erupt in anger on social media sites over what they saw as the publisher’s cowardice in the face of the threats of violence by right-wing forces.

Parallels were drawn between Wendy Doniger and Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses had earned the wrath of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death. He was accused of blasphemy and of “hurting sentiments”. Translators and publishers of the book were assaulted and killed, copies of the book were burnt and assassination attempts were made on Rushdie.

Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, too, had its share of controversy in Bangladesh. Nothing of the sort happened in Wendy Doniger’s case, and yet the publishers thought it prudent to withdraw the book before they were coerced into doing so. Penguin toed the line before it was even drawn as it saw the writing on the wall. Perhaps, it did not want to make enemies. There is nothing extraordinary in this behaviour as it is merely a replay of companies worldwide that threw in the towel before the rise of dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler. Hollywood, which had several Jews in key positions, famously scrapped all negative references to Germany, rewrote scripts and went to great lengths to erase anything that could remotely upset the Fuhrer.

It is a strange irony that the parent company of Penguin Random House is Bertelsmann, a German multinational founded in 1835, whose past is riddled with dubious Nazi connections. In 1998, Bertelsmann acquired a 100 per cent stake in Random House from Advance Publications. In 2013, Bertelsmann and Penguin merged to unite all the publishing imprints of the two companies worldwide under Penguin Random House.

In an open letter to Penguin, which was published in a national daily, the noted writer Arundhati Roy said, “you must tell us what terrified you… What are we to make of this? Must we now write only pro-Hindutva books? Or risk being pulled off the bookshelves in ‘Bharat’ (as your ‘settlement’ puts it) and pulped? Will there be some editorial guidelines perhaps, for writers who publish with Penguin? Is there a policy statement?”

Penguin's statement

In a statement put out to appease its detractors, Penguin said: “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 organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can.”

Putting the blame on Indian law, it said: “The Indian Penal Code, 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.”

Penguin’s is not the first and surely not the last case of what is clearly a tacit collaboration between capitalist and communal forces. HarperCollins India pre-empted similar accusations of obscenity and took discretionary measures to blur out images of a male anatomy in Chester Brown’s graphic novel Paying for It. Rohinton Mistry’s award-winning novel, Such a Long Journey, was removed from the undergraduate syllabus of Mumbai University after Shiv Sainiks alleged that it showed Maharashtrians in bad light. M.F. Husain was accused of “hurting religious sentiments” through his paintings of Hindu deities, and he lived in a self-imposed exile from 2006 until his death in 2011.

In a statement, the writers’ collective Pen said: “We… expect the publisher to be transparent about the circumstances in which it made the decision, which comes at a time when Indian publishers have faced waves of threats from litigants, vigilante groups, and politicians. Siddharth Deb’s The Beautiful and The Damned was published without its first chapter because of a lawsuit. Bloomsbury India withdrew from circulation Jitender Bhargava’s book, The Descent of Air India. Sahara Group is suing Tamal Bandyopadhyay, author of Sahara: The Untold Story. Foreign publishers have not distributed an English translation of The Red Saree, a book loosely based on Sonia Gandhi's life.”

The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book should be seen more as a case of fascist forces focussing on a soft target than as a case of isolated attacks to squash freedom of expression.

In the name of heritage

Dinanath Batra told Frontline that the SBAS had set up 20 core committees in Jabalpur, Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Delhi, and other parts of the country. The committees meet regularly to discuss strategies and study the educational material provided in schools and colleges to see that they are in line with the “cultural and spiritual heritage” of India.

“Wherever it is found to disrespect the sentiments or distort facts, we will agitate at the State level and pursue legal action. We have won the battle, we will win the war,” he said. Batra has written nine books on education. They are being translated into Gujarati for distribution among schoolteachers.

Batra was born and brought up in Dera Ghazi Khan, now in Pakistan. According to reports, he claims to see often in his dreams images of his house, his journey to school, and the locality he had inhabited in Pakistan. He has said that he is not against the minorities. “There are so many Mohammedans and Christians in the country. Can’t drown them all in the sea. They should live in India as Indians.”

Batra plans to set up a non-governmental autonomous commission whose main focus will be on value education, environmental issues, social development of children and character building.

In the preface to her book, Wendy Doniger wrote:

“It [the book] tells a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people—people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women). Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism.”

Anyone seeking a different interpretation must do so prudently through erudition and theories. Instead, fundamentalism chooses to counter knowledge and stifle liberal thinking through the tactics of intimidation and violence. By going after soft targets, it creates an atmosphere in which the liberal voices are constantly put under the scanner.

Professor Jairus Banaji, a Marxist scholar and thinker, said: “The attack on Wendy Doniger’s book is symptomatic of a wider authoritarianism that has eaten into the foundations of India’s democracy behind the spurious constructions of ‘hurt sentiment’.

“We all know what this drive for mind-control means at the political level, because the cultural fascists are also storm troopers of the political fascism that is now threatening to seize power and demolish democracy in more sweeping ways. What if I were to say, it hurts my sentiment to see the ugly faces of murderous political leaders strewn across the country? It hurts my sentiment that politicians who actively connived in the large-scale slaughter of innocent men, women and children should still be at large and not behind bars? Do my sentiments count for nothing?”

The true villain

Responding to the episode with anger and disappointment, Wendy 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. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were 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 jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”

Malarvizhi Jayanth, a researcher on South Asia who has worked under Wendy Doniger, said: “Wendy Doniger’s scholarship undoes the Hindu Right’s lies about our past. Also, and this makes her a bigger danger, she works to make that scholarship available to as wide an audience as possible. The Hindu Right includes political parties, academics, businessmen and large numbers of Indians who believe in a mythical golden past, including those who believe in it enough to participate in the genocide of their fellow citizens. None of them have managed to produce anything close to what Wendy Doniger has achieved in The Hindus: An Alternative History, a breath-taking survey of Hindu beliefs and practices and their transformations through history, often under the influence of people who were not male Brahmins.

“Wendy Doniger’s real crime, in the eyes of the Hindu right, is that of describing the histories of myth, showing us the ways in which myth is constructed through history. To her credit, she has not restricted her meticulous and loving scholarship to the charmed circle of academia. She works in American academia, where titles about India are sometimes published with academic presses that do not distribute to India. She chose instead to publish through Penguin, a company that mostly publishes mass-market and trade paperbacks….

“I hold the Hindu Right, its history of violence and bullying and its fear of history, responsible. The Hindu Right seeks to steal our past, restrict our present and create a violent, blood-stained future. Wendy Doniger’s scholarship is a courageous, unique and valuable response to these efforts. That is why they fear her, seek to silence her voice and discredit her work. That is why we must listen to her and continue to protest the Hindu Right’s attempts to substitute history with myth.”

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