The news of the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, An Alternative History, and the subsequent articles and comments on the news, make it clear that the issue is not confined to just the action against this book but has relevance to other aspects in contemporary Indian life. The immediate concern is that of the relationship between authors and publishers. There was a time when publishers closely followed the work of their authors and the implications of what they were publishing. Today perhaps only a few publishers, often only the small and private ones, have such concerns. International publishing houses, or even national ones with an extensive reach, do not always know their authors that well, so invariably they are not too sensitive to the political undercurrents of the societies where their books sell. Still, the demand for banning a book comes as a surprise. The question then is whether the publisher is willing to stand by the author and defend his/her freedom of expression. When books are treated as commodities, then profits become the prime concern.
Penguin published the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, having successfully fought a legal charge of obscenity, but in those years it was not an international publisher. We don’t know why Penguin Books India capitulated to the threat over Doniger’s book. Nevertheless, publishers have to be reminded that they should be among the primary guardians of freedom of expression.