India has a knack for staying in the news. Unfortunately, it’s no longer the “future world power” stories we were reading a few years ago. After reports of more gang rapes, problems with the United States over the Devyani Khobragade case, criminalizing homosexuality and the International Olympic Committee’s refusal (then permission) to raise the flag at the Sochi games over corruption in the Indian Olympic Association, now comes another story: the Wendy Doniger saga.
Doniger, a scholar of religion and professor at the University of Chicago, wrote “The Hindus: An Alternative History” in 2009. After severe backlash in India and a court case that ended last week, publishing company Penguin Books India decided to stop publication of the book. Penguin settled out of court with Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), which says the book “hurts people’s religious sentiments.” The organization filed a complaint based on “Section 295a of the Indian penal code, which outlaws acts ‘intended to outrage religious feelings.’” The case has caused outrage in India, and, as a result of Penguin’s actions, the book has become a hot seller on Amazon. Countless media organizations and well-known writers have reported and weighed in on the issue.
The group that filed the lawsuit said it was because it “hurt the feelings of Hindus.” More specifically, the connections between sex and religion, misinterpretations of the sacred text and factual inaccuracies are the main concerns about “The Hindus.” Here’s Murali Balaji of the Hindu American Foundation:
But the book and many of her articles over a 40-year academic career misinterpret facts or pick and choose incidents that conveniently fit a narrative of an erotic, exotic, mythologically rife Hinduism whose portrayal is actually alien, and often insulting, to adherents of that tradition.
Another objection, eloquently written by Jakob De Roover in Outlook, is the tired repetition of Western cultures focused on the “‘sex and caste’ genre” so often used to describe Hinduism. He asserts that this dates to colonialism, when Western cultures were trying to make sense of Hinduism:
In short, the connection established between Hinduism and sexuality was based in a Christian frame that served to distinguish pagan idolaters from true believers. Wendy Doniger’s work builds on this tradition. Like some of her predecessors, she appreciates the sexual freedom involved, but then she also tends to stress two aspects: sex and caste. This is not a coincidence, for these always counted as two major properties allowing Western audiences to appreciate the supposed inferiority of Hinduism.
There is a rich debate to be had here, supporting or dismantling Doniger’s claims. There is no question: The book should have been published. Withdrawing the book does a disservice to the intellectual conversation that Indian society needs, and it empowers ignorance. Another scary result: It sets a dangerous precedent and fuels a continuing one: This is the “third [book] in as many months to be effectively censored through private means, by using legal threats.“
There are some concerns when it comes to Doniger and Western media articles about the backlash against her work. While you can disagree with the book and still want it published, Doniger repeatedly blames any criticism of her work on the right wing, sweeping aside any real concerns about it. It’s almost too easy to frame those who are religious as religious fundamentalists — when some on the far right try to ban “On the Origin of the Species” in the United States, it doesn’t mean all Christians support such drastic measures. In the same sense, there are many Hindus, scholars and academics who disagree with her writings but believe the book should be published. Those voices get trampled by an easily digestible battle between religious fundamentalists and secular liberals. But that’s what happens when a book is basically banned; the debate on the actual content is lost and is focused instead on free speech. That’s where Doniger is in the right.
That doesn’t mean the right-wing party isn’t pushing this debate — after all, elections are coming in May. That said, Penguin’s decision to not wait for a judgment and to settle is disappointing. It’s easy to publish books that are safe. It’s for the ones that challenge us that the concept of free speech exists.