Some are calling it the silencing of liberal India. After a four-year court battle, Penguin India that had published the The Hindus: An Alternative History in 2009, succumbed to pressure and agreed to settle out-of-court with Dinanath Batra, the Delhi-based petitioner who had sought to get the book withdrawn. The 683-page tome of scholarly and allegedly revisionist observations on evolution of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger, a US-based scholar on religions, now stands withdrawn (though it’s available on the Internet). Apart from incensing guardians of free speech, the virtual ban on the book has also raised a major legal question regarding the categorisation of Indian epics as myths catering to the Hindu faith or part of civilisational history. Also disturbing is the question of what constitutes religious belief and potential projectiles that could hurt such beliefs.
As news on The Hindus trickled out of publishing circles, the agreement the Penguin signed was also made public on Scribd. “The second party shall with immediate effect recall and withdraw all copies of the book The Hindus: An Alternative History written by Wendy Doniger from the Bharat…That all the recalled/withdrawn/unsold copies of ‘the book’ shall be pulped…”, it read. A notable clause in the agreement was also a submission by Penguin that it “respects all religions worldwide”, which amounted to accepting that publishing The Hindus was, in a manner, disrespectful of a religion.
Doniger, 73, a Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is a prominent scholar on Sanskrit texts as well as a supporter of the idea of Hinduism when juxtaposed with Ambedkar’s rejection of the religious grouping. She has worked with AK Ramanujan, whose book Three Hundred Rāmāyanas, a seminal work on multiple narratives of various Ramayanas found in the Indian subcontinent had also offended Hindutva groups. She has been assertive of tolerance of plurality as being one of the strongest strains of Hinduism. Other critics of her work have questioned the wisdom behind subjecting characters of Indian epics to psychoanalysis and over-reading supposed sexual undercurrents in the Sanskrit texts.
Take, for example, this extract:
“This book attempts to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (pitha).”
In a statement released to the media after news came on the withdrawal of the book, Doniger chose to blame Indian laws rather than Penguin. “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate… 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,” she wrote. She also cited from the petition that sought to criminalise the mere act of calling the Ramayana a fiction as opposed to the petitioner’s argument that the text was historic material, using 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer, explains how sections 295A and similar provisions can be used in unjust ways. “Section 295A says that if you “deliberately and maliciously” hurt the sentiments of a religious community, you are criminally culpable. What must be proven beyond reasonable doubt is the “malicious intent”. So if Doniger was writing out of an academic interest or other impulse then Section 295A would not apply. Second, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that a particular person’s religious feelings were indeed hurt and the person was not acting out of political intent or an intent to bully,” she says. “There are times when trial courts don’t do justice to people accused in this way, and fail to implement Supreme Court judgments clarifying the law. The laws themselves were designed to suppress dissent by a colonial power, to police a colonised people. These laws are entirely undemocratic. I’m glad there’s a larger conversation beginning to repeal these laws that criminalise speech.”
DINANATH BATRA, the 84-year-old petitioner, is triumphant and doesn’t shy away from declaring he has launched a “movement against more such works that denigrate Hinduism”. The former headmaster of a school runs Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, an organisation that, in his words, strives to save Hindu values in our educational system. He had earlier claimed that Doniger’s approach was “jaundiced… her approach is that of a woman hungry for sex.” “This woman has painted our gods and goddesses as mere creatures obsessed with sex. She has claimed in her book that we Hindus neither have a holy book or a solid belief system. The book denigrates our tradition and beliefs. Without understanding anything about Hinduism, she has written a book on our faith. She has got everything wrong; for instance, she shows Ashvamedha Yagya as sacrifice of a horse. It has nothing to do with sacrifice of a horse. The book shows in negative light some of our great freedom fighters. It is deeply offensive to Hindus’ religious beliefs, and it was natural that I as a Hindu had to start a movement against the book. I am 84 years young and I will go to jail if required,” he says.
Batra is also defensive of Muslim clerics who declared fatwa on cartoonists who had dared to draw an imaginary picture of Prophet Mohammed. “Freedom of speech and expression are indeed a part of our Constitution and I believe everyone has a right to have their opinion heard. Take, for instance, drawing Prophet Mohammed cartoon. I believe it’s wrong. Nobody has the right to hurt anybody’s religious feelings,” he adds.
Batra has also found great support from organisations with affiliations to the Sangh Parivar. Prakash Sharma, national spokesperson of the VHP, calls Batra a senior and respected activist. “In our long struggle, some lead and some follow. In this particular case, (of Wendy Doniger’s book) VHP is following as Batraji leads. Anybody who insults our tradition and culture will not be tolerated,” he says.
Even as Batra’s men celebrate their victory in a “successful battle”, in all probability more people will be reading The Hindus out of curiosity.