A legion of this blog’s readers—if we redefine legion to mean between 3 and 6 readers and not the usual 3,000 to 6,000—has asked me why I have not commented on Penguin India’s decision to withdraw the Chicago Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. They think because I live in Chicago and because I am hyperloquent* about such matters, I must say something. It is a fair expectation to which I have no particular response. I guess I am just bored with lofty debates.
Now that I have chosen to dwell on the subject, I might as well share a few ideas. One is, of course, my genuine incomprehension as to what this means for Doniger and Penguin in real practical commercial sense. The book has been around for a while and until it was given the kind of notorious visibility that Penguin’s decision to pulp it as part of a legally binding settlement has given it, I think its sale had already plateaued out.
What this settlement is likely to do is to a) Increase its sales to a frenzied pitch in the next six months within which the publisher is mandated to pulp it, which means all copies will be sold rather than scrapped and b) It is available elsewhere in the world, including on the net. The victory for the campaigner against the book, an 84-year-old retired school headmaster called Dinanath Batra, is at best symbolic. Its potential to continue to offend has not really been dented at all.
It is the existence of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which is the problem here. The section is against, “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and allows for a prison term of three years for those found guilty of violating it.
“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both,” it says.
It is by invoking this section that Batra managed to compel Penguin India to withdraw the book. It is arguable whether in the absence of this particular section any petitioner could have forced the issue of religious hurt to this extent. The legal battle had been going on since 2009 and to the extent that Batra operated within the confines of the law of the land one cannot really characterize his campaign as fundamentalist lunacy. Of course, his motivation may have been entirely that or it is equally possible that he was acting out of a genuine sense of religious hurt.
One can vigorously argue the merit or demerit of whether an individual’s, or for that matter an entire community’s sense of offense should be allowed to come into conflict with an individual scholar or author’s freedom of speech. Or even whether religion should exist at all and if it should how personally it should be taken.The simple fact is that the case went to a court of law and the outcome is that the publisher in its wisdom chose to cave in for reasons which it finds justifiable and commercially prudent.
Whether Batra is a right wing nut case, whether the space for a liberal discourse is dangerously constricting in India and whether a section of India is getting Talibanized are questions quite extraneous to the main point that a Section 295A has been inserted into the country’s penal code. Why is it there on the statute books and, being there, can someone like Batra be blamed for using it to legally achieve his ideological objectives, however insane they might be?
It has been argued that this case will have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech. Probably so. Scholarship of any kind, particularly the one that concerns itself with religious and cultural matters, has always entailed all kinds of risks and dangers. Those who practice it do so fully mindful of this professional hazard. At best, democracy is about negotiated freedoms. Unless the liberals manage to secede from the rest of the cruel world and found Liberalistan, which I will happily shift to, they have no option but to operate within those negotiated freedoms.
On balance, Doniger’s book is unlikely to suffer any significant ill effects. As for other scholars wanting to pursue such scholarly and contrarian views of the world, they would have to be ready for the hazards that come with it. Freedom of speech is not intrinsic to the mere intention of wanting to be a scholar of any kind.
The right to offend for the sake of offending is a gloriously unachievable dream. I offend because I can and want to is not a creed hanging outside any country that I know of, including where I live. So let there be Liberalistan with its tourism slogan “Come to Liberalistan where you can offend because you can and want to.”
All that said, my final position is that I do not understand why you humans are the way you are.
P.S.: I reached out to Dr. Doniger via email on the day the story broke. She did not respond. Her handlers did not even send me her official statement. So much for my standing as a veteran journalist.
* Not a word but I coined it here quite sometime ago.