If censorship happens in Bharat, what about India?

By Chhetria Patrakar

24 February 2014

Image: Penguin India

Image: Penguin India

The recent case of American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) being withdrawn by Penguin India and committed to pulping is another example of India’s succumbing to regressive politics. An out-of-court settlement was reached between Penguin and the complainants, a right-wing Hindu group called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (the Save Education Movement), while the Saket court in Delhi was considering the complaint that had originally been filed in February 2010. As Arundhati Roy wrote in an open letter to Penguin (her publisher, too) condemning and questioning the act, one of the oldest publishing houses in the world has succumbed to the demands of a fly-by-night Hindutva outfit even though there was no fatwa, ban, or court order.

Penguin India’s actions are shameful, and particularly disturbing considering the sexist, misogynist language used in the petition against Doniger and the book. The legal notice served to the publisher, the author and the Saket court in 2010 includes the statement “your approach is that of a woman hungry of sex”, and repeatedly refers to the book as pornographic literature. Elsewhere, it is clear that the Andolan are angry that an American, a woman no less, had the audacity to act as an expert on Hinduism. Links can be drawn to the scorn that was directed at Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who wrote a book on Jesus Christ, the point being how dare one not part of the group comment. Furthermore, the bizarre use of Bharat in the (English-language) agreement between the plaintiffs and defendant echoes RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement that “rapes occur in India, not Bharat”, drawing a conceptual division between traditional and modern India. Acquiescing to the demands of the petitioners – rather than standing up to their obvious irrationality and lack of intellectual rigour – amounts to Penguin giving legitimacy to their language and sentiments.

It would appear that the marketing and legal departments of Penguin India have taken this decision, side-lining the better sense of the editorial divisions. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta nicely put it in Kafila: “The people who man the legal and corporate benches in large publishing houses are usually idiots.”  Penguin India has been making some curious additions to their brand in recent years – the creation of the Penguin Ananda and Penguin Shobhaa De imprints, for example. While these additions can be defended on the grounds of providing a diversity of reading material, representing the multiple viewpoints, lifestyles, attitudes and tastes of contemporary India, it is more than a shame that the same argument couldn’t have saved Doniger’s book from the trash heap.

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