Monday, February 17, 2014

Penguin India Withdraws: To Keep Religious Peace Or Placate BJP?



 Free speech in India came under fire when an internationally renowned publisher agreed to withdraw a book from circulation after complaints by far-right Hindu nationalists. But, critics said Penguin India had agreed to an out-of-court settlement in a civil law suit because it did not want to offend the Hindu nationalist Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP) that is widely expected to return to power in the May general election.


The book, The Hindus: an Alternative History authored by noted US scholar Wendy Doniger was published in 2009 and became a bestseller in India in the non-fiction category. The book was however not without its critics. In 2011 Dinanath Batra of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a petition under Section 295A of the India Penal Code that protects citizens against “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

“In its first comments on the row Penguin said it had to respect the laws of land, such as those which make it a crime to offend religious feeling,” said the BBC. The settlement obliges Penguin India to withdraw all copies from circulation and destroy unsold copies while the petitioner was enjoined to withdraw case filed against the publisher.

Although Penguin agreed to a settlement, it has not settled the row between free speech advocates and those who believe that academic and creative works that offend religious feelings should not published.

“There hasn’t been any court order. The settlement was signed before they went to Supreme Court. Of course, there is a problem with strange and ambiguous laws, but they didn’t fight it until the end,” Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy told the BBC.

Free speech advocate PEN also condemned Penguin’s decision: “PEN’s India Centres in Delhi and Mumbai are deeply concerned about the reported decision by Penguin India to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s scholarly book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Choosing to settle the matter out of court, instead of challenging an adverse judgment, narrows India’s intellectual discourse and significantly undermines freedom of expression.”

BBC quoted Batra who filed the petition against Penguin had said, “The book is in a bad taste right from the beginning…If you see the front page [cover], the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in a vulgar pose. The book is slanderous and even facts have been distorted.”

While Batra’s view is that of a philistine’s, the question of where a publisher draws a line between free speech and preserving the peace remains paramount – specially in a multi-religious country like India which has a 60-year history of conflict between majority Hindus and minority Muslims.

In an opinion piece to the Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui quotes former federal minister and member of India’s Upper House Mani Shankar Aiyer saying, “Rushdie, that sod — he deliberately insulted and provoked Muslims but in the guise of literature. To us, keeping the peace in our complex, pluralistic society is more important than his preening about free speech.”

Aiyer was of course referring to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses published in 1988 and banned in India because of fears it would provoke a Muslim backlash. 

Aiyer continues, “Everyone in a democracy has the right to freedom of expression and everyone also has the right to be outraged. Such outrage, when shared by a large number of people, has to be taken into account by a democracy. To pre-empt protest that could turn violent is the duty of government.”

Penguin’s announcement was seen by New York Times’ Ellen Barry as a possible step by the publisher to safeguard against a Hindu backlash if the Hindu nationalist BJP formed the government after victory at India’s forthcoming general election.

“The announcement (of the settlement) has rippled through a city bracing itself for big change. Three months remain before general elections, in which the center-left Indian National Congress party is expected to suffer one of the worst losses in its history to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party…,” she writes.

“Past Hindu nationalist governments have been marked by battles over religion and history. Artists tackling religious themes have been targeted by fringe groups, sometimes with a threat of violence attached,” said Barry in an opinion piece to the NYT.

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