Totalizing History, Silencing Dissent in India

The agreement by Penguin Books India to destroy all existing copies of Wendy Doniger’s book -- The Hindus: An Alternative History -- represents the destruction of the very fabric of Indian culture

Posted on 02/15/14
By Ratna Kapur | Via The Hindu
(Image via IBN video)
(Image via IBN Live video)

The agreement by Penguin Books India, a unit of Penguin Random House, to withdraw as well as destroy all existing copies of its 2009 book titled The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, within six months, is both disturbing as well as foreboding.

 

The lawsuit filed against Penguin India by Dina Nath Batra, the head of Shiksha Bacho Andolan, a fringe Hindu right-wing group dealing with education and text books, objected to the pluralistic representation of Hinduism and its references to the esoteric and heterodox practices that constitute the tradition.

 

Wendy Doniger ‘angry and disappointed’

Wendy Doniger
Wendy Doniger

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Via Hindustan Times

Professor Wendy Doniger on Tuesday (Feb 11) said she was “angry and disappointed” that Penguin had withdrawn her book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’, but added that she was glad that in the age of the internet it was no longer possible to suppress a book.

 

In a statement to HT from Chicago, Doniger said: “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 gives in, takes The Hindus off shelves

 

She added: “And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped”.

 

 

It’s always a pleasure to burn: why it’s easy to ‘ban’ books in India

 

Doniger, one of the prominent Indologists based at the University of Chicago, however, said that she did not blame Penguin Books, India.

 

“Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. 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”, she said. She added: “They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense 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.

 

Read: Penguin can’t duck this: earns online fury for scrapping

 

‘The Hindus’ Doniger said she was “thrilled and moved” by the many messages of support that she had received, not merely from friends and colleagues but from people in India that she had never met, who had read the book. Thanks to the Internet, she said people in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, “including some that may offend some Hindus”.

 

Read below the full text Of Wendy’s statement given to HT:

Dear friends,

I have had literally hundreds of requests for interviews, in various media, and I can’t do them all. So here is a statement that you may use. I hope it’s enough; it’s the best I can do right now. I intend to write a longer article for publication in a couple of weeks. Yours with gratitude for your courage and compassion, Wendy.

 

I was thrilled and moved by the great number of messages of support that I received, not merely from friends and colleagues but from people in India that I have never met, who had read and loved The Hindus, and by news and media people, all of whom expressed their outrage and sadness and their wish to help me in any way they could. 

 

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. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India.

 

Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. 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 offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.

 

An example at random, from the lawsuit in question: ‘That YOU NOTICEE has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction. “Placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times……….” (P.662) This breaches section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). ‘ Finally, I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book.

 

The Hindus is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.

In the lawsuit filed in 2011 under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of a religious community, the group claimed that the book insulted millions of Indians, in particular, Hindus. The group also argued that the book was inaccurate, presenting a “shallow, distorted, non-serious presentation of Hinduism filled with heresies” and that it reduced Hinduism to a narrative of “a woman hungry for sex” or what one reviewer described as an “overeroticized” account of the religion.

 

Cultural identity

While Wendy Doniger has responded to the court settlement as sounding the alarm bells for the survival of free speech in an ever-worsening political climate in India, she also remarked that not being either a Hindu or a male placed her in a doubly disadvantaged situation with the Hindutva forces.

 

Dr. Doniger has established herself as a provocative scholar through the use of psychoanalytic theory to approach issues of gender, sexuality and religion and her work has been a lightning rod for Hindu nationalists and fanatics alike. She has written a plethora of texts that subvert the projection of Hinduism as a homogenous, unified and cohesive tradition. In one of her earliest books Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts (1980), Dr. Doniger established her credentials as a Sanskrit scholar and used her in-depth knowledge of Sanskrit texts to speculate on their significance in challenging and creative ways. She defends the eclecticism that she deploys in her analysis — as opening up culture — as something that is dynamic, shape-shifting and always tentative.

 

Dr. Doniger’s work is reminiscent of the extraordinary and influential scholarship of the black British scholar Stuart Hall, an intellectual Titan in cultural studies, who recently died, and his approach to culture as hybrid.

 

The HindusAccording to Dr. Hall, one position on cultural identity is that it consists of “one shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self,’ hiding inside the many other, more superficial and artificially imposed ‘selves’, which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common.” It is a position which assumes that cultural identity is stable and unchanging. Cultural identity consists of an essence that needs to be excavated and brought to light.

 

The second view of cultural identity is based on the recognition that there are points of similarity within the context of a culture, but there are also points of difference, of discontinuity and dispersal. It does not entail an archaeological search, but a re-telling of the past. Dr. Hall pointed out that it was not possible to “speak about one identity, one story, without acknowledging the ruptures and discontinuities of the story we tell or re-tell. We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity,’ without acknowledging its other side — differences and discontinuities.”

 

The effort by the conservative and right movements to cabin and contain this fluidity and hybridity is reminiscent of colonial as well as fascist forces that have sought to ensure that their versions of the “truth” prevailed. And this effort was pursued not only through physical annihilation, but also through erasures of history and the silencing of dissenting voices.

 

The settlement is not only a story about free speech in a democracy; it is reminiscent of the darkest aspects of the 2002 Gujarat riots
The settlement is not only a story about free speech in a democracy; it is reminiscent of the darkest aspects of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The extreme violence inflicted on the Muslim community, women in particular, was not just about the objectification and victimization of women or the community – about injuries that could be healed through reparations. The violence was embedded in the broader ideological agenda and discursive aspects of the Hindu right’s strategy that have constituted the subjectivities of both the majority and minority communities. The complete erasures of Muslim bodies, houses, shrines, and mosques almost overnight, and their replacement with roads and Hindu temples was nothing short of an effort to expunge the Muslim from the very body politic and structure of Indian (read Hindu) society.

 

Hindu nationalist project

The settlement needs to be read within this broader discursive and material reality, where the establishment of the Hindu nationalist project that seeks to project the Muslim as a foreigner and alien and hence a threat requires to be completedEducation, cultural representation, and the media are all tools deployed in the zealous and undeterred march of the steely-eyed and determined Narendra Modi and the Hindu right in this direction.

 

The loss of The Hindus: An Alternative History represents not only a defeat for the publishing world; it represents the destruction of the very fabric of Indian culture as chaotic, diverse, subversive, and provocative. It is an injury inflicted on more than just the work of one author – it is an injury inflicted on critique and dissent, and points to the precariousness of lives and histories that do not conform to the totalizing agenda of the Hindu right.

 

Ratna Kapur is professor, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat. This article first appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s largest English language daily.

 

Related article

Academics, writers decry Penguin’s withdrawal of Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’

The ban has sparked fierce debate in India on the question of freedom of expression. Here is one such argument in a show on IBN Live (a CNN affiliate), a leading Indian television channel.

Check Also

The Effects of Natural Disasters on the Economy

From fuel costs to inflation, natural disasters pose a threat to the United States economy. Fortunately, activism promises a solution.

Climate Change and Poverty in Africa

To withstand the inevitable natural disasters climate change will bring, better disaster risk management must start now.

Leave a Reply