September 20, 2020
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A Slanging Match

Important questions brought up by l'affaire Doniger remain unanswered

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A Slanging Match

There are important questions brought up by the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus by the publisher, Penguin India, following a legal notice served by Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS). The publisher has received opprobrium from various entities and individuals in India and abroad for this decision. Doniger's statement legitimising Penguin's decision gave them more than a clean chit. These events were followed by an agitated public campaign against the decision of Penguin India and for change in the Indian Penal Code that criminalises publication of material deemed hurtful to any religious community. It became a queer situation befitting the adage jab miyan biwi raazi to kya karega kaazi (when the husband and wife are happy, what is the worth of the qazi).

One legal interpretation of the withdrawal of the book after a notice served by the SBAS is that Doniger and Penguin have accepted The Hindus to be hurtful as per IPC. On February 16, the SBAS said that they intend to appeal against other works of Doniger available in India. Given the manner in which The Hindus has been withdrawn, this will be a cakewalk. In The Hindus case, the author and the publisher shifted the entire blame to the Indian Penal Code and the supposedly worsening political situation of India. Petitions have been signed regarding the Indian Penal Code and the decision of Penguin India. Doniger has not supported either petition. Penguin continues to be the copyright holder of The Hindus in India and abroad. No petitioner has said anything about the moral right of Random House Penguin to sell the book outside India. None has asked Doniger to stop all association with the publisher or to find a new publisher for markets outside India.

Whether the political situation of India is worsening is subjective. It is incorrect to view Penguin India as a victim of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Despite lengthy legal battles, the IPC has never meted out criminal punishment to any publisher since 1947 under the relevant sections (if you know better, please inform) including the works of R.V. Bhasin, M F Hussain, James Laine, Tasleema Nasreen and Salman Rushdie. Many books and cultural items that have faced attempted boycott in the past, especially those in English, continue to be commercially and legally available for sale and distribution in India including those by the Ahmadiyya Missions, B.R. Ambedkar, Adolf Hitler, Kancha Ilaiah, Taslima Nasreen, Arundhati Roy, Honey Singh, Jaswant Singh and others. 

Despite social and political boycotts, the security of controversial writers practicing in English, or those whose plight reaches the English media, has not been breached often. The circumstances of those who write in other languages, and those whose plights do not reach the English language media, or those who live and perform in parts of India where state presence is weak or of a military nature, may differ. Accomplished scholars in Sikh studies, including Pashaura Singh and Piar Singh, but not others, have submitted to the Akal Takht as the final authority on Sikh scripture after lengthy debates held outside the domain of IPC. Summary bans on books have been imposed by state or central government orders in India, whether preceded by a social boycott or not, subsequently challenged in a court of law or not, and whether the ban was subsequently upheld or not. 

It is noteworthy that a majority of such bans were revoked upon challenge. This might be the case because the courts are unable to find 'malicious intent' in most cases. The case of books that are banned after socio-political boycotts, or upon receiving a defamation notice, is more complicated. Often, courts let these cases drag with an interim injunction. The Hindus is not part of this category of books. Many bans, especially on imported books, have gone unchallenged and unrevoked. Ideally, polities and societies should resolve their differences through dialogue without the need of legal interventions. Do governments or societies have a right to censor, proscribe, protect or legislate on social and political issues, including provisions for freedom of speech? I do not know about the future, but in the past and present, all governments and societies from Bihar to Boston have proscribed or protected the committing of certain actions and the expression of certain thoughts ranging from the banal to the metaphysical.

The books that have been banned and withdrawn in India may be divided into certain types. The concern here is with books that have been withdrawn simply on the basis of a legal notice from a private party, i.e., not banned by an order from law enforcement agencies, whether the ban is subsequently upheld by a court of law or not. The number of books voluntarily withdrawn by publishers upon a legal notice has increased over the last 15 years. Some publishers that did so are Penguin India (twice, Peter Heehs' book on Sri Aurobindo; The Hindus), Harper Collins India (the unflattering biography of Dhirubhai Ambani), Bloomsbury India (the unflattering biography of Air India that Praful Patel disliked), Oxford University Press (it withdrew an article by A K Ramanujan from an edited volume) and the University of Mumbai press (it withdrew passages from Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey from a course booklet; the novel is available for purchase in India). The cases involving OUP and the University of Mumbai are fundamentally different from those involving the Indian arms of Bloomsbury, Harper Collins and Penguin. The former undertook their actions on the basis of violent social boycotts and the latter upon mere legal notices (Penguin & Bloomsbury) and unexplained behaviour (Harper Collins). Once upon a time, Penguin had no compunction in continuing the worldwide publication of The Satanic Verses. I wonder what prompted the international publishers, all of whom could surely afford legal fees, to withdraw certain books. These publishing houses are owned by News Corp, Pearson Inc and Bloomsbury Group, firms listed on the NYSE, London Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, respectively. These three, and OUP, also own and publish various books, textbooks and journals that social scientists write or contribute to. These same publishers spent money to pay lawyers who argued, without legal precedent or unanimity on the interpretation of relevant Indian laws, for the regulation of photocopying services in Indian universities. Authors and researchers should rethink the nature and character of academic publishing and its relationship with the freedom of expression.

The purpose of writing and cultural service should not be to merely plant the flag of the freedom of expression or the right to raise objections. It should also be to create and nurture an atmosphere of discussion. It is important to recognise the difference between dialogue, communication, expression, publication and activism. At one level, it is irrelevant that past and present interaction between SBAS and allied organisations, and Doniger and Penguin India, has been acrimonious. The reading public and those interested in Hindus and their history deserve to know more regarding The Hindus and the Hindus from these entities and individuals, all of whom have shown remarkable capacity for a lack of interaction and dialogue while harping about their respective rights to legal recourse and freedom of expression. In the context of The Hindus controversy, the exercise of these rights has only increased fractiousness in a public space crowded with thinkers and activists entrenched in their positions and unwilling to take a step forward.

However, at another level, the petty and fractious relationship between Doniger and organisations such as SBAS and Infinity Foundation continues to play out in the public sphere. Whatever be their motive, SBAS and Infinity Foundation have given lengthy and nuanced assessments (even if they be damning) of the works of Doniger and other scholars in Hindu studies that raise some very valid questions. Doniger's statement regarding the withdrawal of The Hindus and the lack of response to very detailed critiques in the past indicates that she is disinclined to address her detractors. It is ironic that people at the SBAS and Infinity Foundation have read Doniger's oeuvre with as much, if not more, attention than any of her anonymous reviewers. However, these organisations should also offer more constructive views regarding Indian and Hindu history and culture to the public. Many of my friends and colleagues, and I, are eagerly awaiting the moment when SBAS and Infinity tell how they plan to reconcile their privileging of the Valmiki Ramayana with the existence of other versions of the Ramayana; why they don't respond to caste groups offended by Kali Puja; why they accept the hyperbole of Persian poets and panegyrists who claimed that their patrons broke 10,000 or more temples at face value; and, why they repeatedly underplay patronage to Sanskrit and Hindi poets, Hindu musicians and Hindu and Jain shrines, including the Chitrakut temple, during the reign of Aurangzeb. The field of history would gain with the participation of people who approach issues and original sources differently.

History is supposed to connect the past and the present. In this case, we have history being used to tell what is wrong or right for the present age, while the present is busy telling what should be deleted from the record of history. The effort to see India as Right vs Left or secular vs religious is fundamentally flawed. The Doniger incident has revealed that the so-called Left and Right are keenly replicating the American political culture. The Republicans and Democrats constantly shout past each other but do not talk. It would have been wonderful for Hindu Studies if SBAS withdrew its case and if Doniger had responded to the public regarding the serious allegations that have been levelled against her and thanked SBAS for pointing out the errata. This would have furthered our understanding of the Hindus in all their difference and unity. Sadly, the horse of the Asvamedha has bolted beyond sight.

Vikas Rathee is a PhD candidate in History at The University of Arizona.

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