Dean Nelson, Telegraph (London), February 11, 2014
The publisher Penguin has been accused of cowardice after it agreed to withdraw and pulp all remaining copies of a widely-acclaimed book on Hinduism to settle a civil claim from a Hindu fundamentalist group.
The book, The Hindus, An Alternative History, by respected American academic Wendy Doniger, was published in 2009 to correct misunderstanding of the religion as prescriptive and shame-based and to reveal its compassionate and tolerant roots.
But it provoked an angry response from Hindu fundamentalist groups who said it took a “Christian missionary” approach to denigrate the faith, was littered with factual errors and defamed revered Gods.
Soon after its publication, a civil case was launched by six complainants led by Dina Nath Batra a text book adviser during the last Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government who rejected a number of history books be believed had wounded Hindu “sentiments” and pride. Ms Doniger’s book had intended to show the Hindu religion “in a poor light” and had been disrespectful of its Gods and Goddesses, he argued.
His group’s claim cited the book’s cover jacket which shows Lord Krishna “sitting on the buttocks of a naked woman, surrounded by naked women.” The picture had attempted to “ridicule, humiliate and defame the Hindus and denigrate the Hindu traditions,” it added.
Penguin was on Tuesday accused of “surrender” and “cowardice” by commentators and freedom of expression campaigners after copies of the settlement were released by Mr Batra’s office. Under the terms of the deal, which was reached in a Delhi court on Monday, Penguin agreed to stop the distribution and sale of the book in India and destroy all remaining copies of the book. In exchange, Mr Batra and his fellow litigants agreed to drop all civil and criminal cases against the publisher.
Ms Doniger told friends in India she was angry about the settlement and indicated she had not been consulted about it in advance. She said “For all the people who have expressed outrage over this, I am deeply grateful,” she told friends by email. She said she did not believe it would be possible to stop people buying the book online, although it did not appear possible today to purchase the book on Amazon from India or via local rivals.
Indian literary and cultural commentator Salil Tripathi criticised Penguin for its “surrender” without a fight.
“This is not a ban; it is surrender. There is no nicer way to put it.
“Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel,” he said in an article for the Indian financial paper Mint.
Leading novelist and freedom of expression campaigner Nilanjana Roy said she could not understand why the publisher had not made a stand for its other authors and readers who had bought the book. “If they had fought and lost I would have understood it. They have not given any explanation on why they were forced to settle and I’m puzzled that they would not say anything,” she said.
The settlement was welcomed by Bharatiya Janata Party figures, including Subramanian Swamy, a leading lawyer. “Wendy Doniger buckles before the coming Saffron wave,” he said in a reference to the expected victory of his Hindu nationalist party in this April’s general election.