Washington DC: Penguin India’s decision to withdraw from publication and pulp copies of an American professor’s book on Hinduism in an out of court settlement has ignited a fiery debate here on freedom of the speech in India.
The reactions have ranged from anger to sadness to jubilation depending on which side of the debate one is in.
If the influential New York Times branded it “Muzzling Speech in India”, an Indian-American author and activist called it a “moral victory” for Hindus.
Pulping of “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, who teaches Hinduism at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “is only the latest assault on free speech in India”, the Times said in an editorial Friday.
“The publisher’s move is likely to encourage more demands for censorship,” it said, suggesting “the wanton abuse of laws restricting speech is creating a climate of fear” and “enemies of free speech have pledged to get even more books banned”.
Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a leading think tank, who earlier worked as a top official in the State Department’s South Asia Bureau, was more circumspect.
In an article last week on “The Limits of Speech in India”, Ayres wrote that Penguin’s decision “came as sad news” to her. “One of the great things about India, in my view, is the wonderful acceptance of vigorous disagreement.”
But now “it is getting harder to reconcile the India that symbolises robust democracy, pluralism on a grand scale, and the lessons of tolerance, with another India tiptoeing to avert hurt feelings”, she wrote.
Doniger herself declined a request to talk about her until she has “had time to catch my breath”, but she told the New York Times last week that she expected the book to meet trouble in India.
Noting that “she wasn’t the only author to face scrutiny by Hindu fundamentalist groups”, Doniger told the Times that “right now people are really worried about what’s happening in India” and that has spurred “this tremendous outpouring of indignation” about the fate of her book.
In her book, Doniger said she wanted “to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks”.
The author told the Times she “had no plans officially to protest the decision in India” and expressed gratitude for the a good run the book had there.
In the US too, the controversy has sent the book shooting toward the top of Amazon’s best seller ranks.
Meanwhile, Dinanath Batra, president of Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the group that had initiated legal action against Penguin, told Time magazine why they objected to Doniger’s book.
“Her intention is bad, the content is anti-national and the language is abusive. Her agenda is to malign Hinduism and hurt the feelings of Hindus,” he was quoted as saying.
New Jersey entrepreneur and author Rajiv Malhotra, founder of The Infinity Foundation who has questioned the “eroticisation” of Indian texts by Western scholars, called the Penguin decision a “moral victory”.
Doniger is now “anticipating trouble” with a forthcoming Norton anthology of primary Hindu writings, due out in November, of which she is the editor.
“It’s not me, I’m collecting these texts,” she told the Times. “It’s the texts these people won’t like.”
“I’ve made a point of putting in a lot of them, so people will see Hinduism is both the thing Batra and company say it is and what I say it is.”