Last week, Penguin agreed to remove all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from bookshelves in India and pulp them following a lawsuit by a Hindu nationalist organization that deemed the book offensive. Keating notes that Doniger is not the first author to have this problem:
Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses is banned in India, pulled out of a literary festival in Jaipur after receiving death threats. Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi was banned in 2011 because it suggested he may have been bisexual.
If, as expected, the Hindu nationalist BJP comes into power after this year’s elections, there’s good reason to expect things might get worse.
Jonathan Shainin considers the shaky state of free speech in India:
Free speech has innumerable enemies in India, and comparably few principled defenders—against whom vast legal, political, and social obstacles are arrayed.
A writer, publisher, or newspaper editor can fight a case in court, provided he has the patience to endure the interminable delays of the legal system. In the end, he may even win, though the relevant laws have been interpreted, over the decades, to carve out larger and larger exceptions to the right of free expression enshrined in India’s Constitution. No political leader will dare speak in defense of a text under attack unless the book in question targets his enemies; supporting the freedom of unpopular speech only costs votes and never wins them. And the state does not offer much protection from physical harm. When death threats are phoned to your home, or a mob comes to vandalize your office, you’re on your own.
Nilanjana Roy wants the country’s liberal intellectuals to defend their rights:
For all of the support expressed over Doniger, the resentment at “the bullies,” the Indian liberal response has frequently been to ask why the creative class must go out looking for trouble. … The creative classes in India, especially the middle-class and the elite among them, have bought a precarious immunity through gestures of appeasement. They have not bought freedom; and it remains to be seen whether that sense of safety will last.
The decision to cave is backfiring on the publisher:
The backlash over Penguin’s move last week has been huge, with major literary figures lining up to condemn the withdrawal of The Hindus from India. Penguin took the decision following a four-year legal battle with a Hindu nationalist group which claimed Doniger’s well-reviewed tome violated the Indian penal code – which prevents religious insult – as it “hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus”.
Now the Penguin authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan have written to the publisher asking for their books to be withdrawn and pulped. “[We] have asked Penguin to pulp our books and revert copyright so we can deal with any would-be bullies on our own terms,” said Varadarajan on Twitter.