To ban books on the basis of ‘hurt sentiment’ with no nod to scholarship or debate is untenable: […]
If there was ever a time for the judiciary to redeem itself and to end the ambiguity about free speech, the time is now, when press freedoms stand at a critical crossroads, argues Gautam Bhatia in The Outlook.
It has not been a good week for free speech in India. First, there was Penguin India’s decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus from circulation, under legal pressure from fringe right-wing groups—much criticized in the media. Fresh on its heels followed Reporters Without Borders’ annual report, which placed India at a damning 140th place out of 180 countries in terms of press freedoms. Yet even as free speech liberals attempt to regroup, and take stock of a deteriorating situation, there is yet another lawsuit winding its way through the Calcutta High Court, which could have devastating consequences for the independent press in India.
The news from India these days is rarely cheery. The country’s long-overdue winning streak in the international press, which saw old clichés upgraded to shiny new high-tech models, ended around 2010. Since then, the headlines have been relentlessly grim: corruption, poverty, political dysfunction, violence against women, mistreatment of maids, and the criminalization of homosexuality. On Thursday morning, the big story was a brawl inside the Indian Parliament, during which a lawmaker used a can of pepper spray against his colleagues.
An ancient law that criminalises opinion has been used to suppress a scholarly work on Hinduism. G Vishnu deconstructs the Wendy Doniger controversy in Tehelka
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 Historyin 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and agreed to settle out-of-court with Dinanath Batra, the Delhi-based petitioner who had sought to get the book withdrawn.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revisionist observations on evolution of Hinduismby Wendy Doniger, a US-based scholar on religions, now stands withdrawn (though it’s available on the Internet).
(The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences and director of the India Initiative at Brown University; a contributing editor for the Indian Express; and author, most recently, of Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy.)
So another book has died a premature death in India. Or, has it?
To be precise, it is only a half death, for the book’s digital edition continues to be available to electronic users. A banned book often generates intensely greater curiosity than a book in normal circulation.
Days after Penguin decided to pulp American author Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ following an out-of-court settlement, at least two authors hit back asking the publisher to withdraw their books, nullify their contract and pulp their books too in protest.
Academic Jyotirmaya Sharma, who has published two books with Penguin, and journalist and author Siddharth Varadrajan said they are outraged at the leading publishing house capitulating before a fringe outfit called Shiksha Bachao Andolan which alleges that the 2009 book insults Hindus.
Legally India editor Kian Ganz was in an online Q&A today, fielding some excellent and insightful questions on freedom of speech from CNN-IBN’s viewers. The discussion of course comes on the eve of a media storm surrounding the controversial agreement by Penguin to pulp all India-based copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.
My suspicion for why they did boils down to two different reasons.
1. Fighting a legal case such as this one can take many many years, potentially, and would likely involve at least one appeal to the Supreme Court of India, which is not cheap, nor would winning be a certainty.
A letter to Penguin India (Roy’s publishers)
“Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done—at your out-of-court settlement with an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit—in which you seem to have agreed to take Wendy Donniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History off the bookshelves of ‘Bharat’ and pulp it. There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay.