Aleph Book Company recently caved in to the threats of a
group of Hindu fanatics, abandoned one of their most prestigious authors —
Wendy Doniger — and withdrew her book — On Hinduism — from circulation. The
author's humiliation did not stop there. A year after the book's publication,
they decided to appoint a committee of lawyers and 'four independent writers
and scholars to assess the merits of the work'.
If such an assessment was necessary, it should have been done prior to publication. And this is not a book of scientific formulas or math equations that can be proved right or wrong, true or false. What one is dealing with in a book like On Hinduism is a philosophical and historical exploration of the origins of a religion, the symbolic significance of gods and goddesses, the accretions of mythology over millennia and their interpretation.
Readers can agree or disagree with some or all of the views and theses in this text; you can argue, debate and vigorously point out the flaws in it. But to withdraw it and then to claim that a committee will opine on the validity of speculations and theories in the book, and 'discuss with the author and the complainant in order to find a solution that satisfies all parties', is not only to miss the point of the book but to indulge in chicanery and equivocation of an order that is hard to beat.
Time and again an outdated law is cited as the reason why publishers are easy pushovers. There's no gainsaying the obsolescence of that law and the way it plays into the hands of fanatics. But, as Saurav Datta points out in a powerful article, the law is one thing and its contextual interpretation a totally different kettle of fish.
We can take heart that all is not lost. Indeed while there are some notable cases where courts have banned books, there are also many other instances where courts and their judgments have kept the flame of freedom of expression burning bright.
Censorship has become a competitive business in our country. A minority in each religious community vies with other faiths to show it has the clout to force Parliament and government to bow to its wishes.
Dalits managed to scrap cartoons incorporated in school books from Shankar's Weekly which had made an acerbic comment on the time it was taking B R Ambedkar and his team to put together the Constitution. Rajiv Gandhi went out of his way to ban Satanic Verses, in the hope that he would please the Muslim vote bank. Good Christians took umbrage at film versions of The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ.
But in many ways the majority community are the worst offenders because they are the most un-Hindu of Hindus. They are ignorant of the extra-ordinary openness and inclusiveness of Hinduism. Hinduism of yore did not feel threatened. Jews, Parsis, the Portuguese were all made to feel welcome when they landed on our shores and were allowed to practise their religion.
Dinanath Batra should have remembered one of our oldest traditions. Since time immemorial we did not persecute or ostracise people with a different religion or point of view. What we did was resolve any controversial, metaphysical differences with debates open to all and sundry.
The most famous of these was the great Advait scholar and ascetic Adi Shankaracharya's face-to-face debate with Mandana Misra of the Mimamsa school of Buddhist ritualistic philosophy. Imagine, what a fine democratic tradition we have had for millennia when nobody had heard of a fundamental right called freedom of expression. No anger, no false accusations, no cheap power play, no banning of texts and no persecution for following different schools of belief. Just breathing the bracing air of tolerance.
Penguin, Aleph and Rupa seem unaware of the implications of the times in which we live. Coronation of Narendra Modi is round the corner. He was a member of RSS from his youth and shares the same ideology as Batra. But quite apart from that, some of the things that have come to light about Modi are troubling to say the least.
I'm not referring to the role of Modi's government in the 2002 Gujarat riots but the 24x7 illegal tapping of phones, the machinery of the state being dragooned to snoop on the activities of a lady in Ahmedabad, and the censoring of this matter till recently. When she moved to Bangalore, Gujarat authorities allegedly asked Karnataka's government about interstate tapping of the lady's phone, another thing the law forbids. At no point has Modi or his man Friday denied doing all these dubious things.
It would be harmful to India's polity and to the quality of our intellectual life if our apathy does not permit us to see the writing on the wall. Many commentators have remarked that even BJP should beware Modi. He's not merely a polarising entity; he likes to have his way at any cost. All of us must perforce take a stand now and make the new government realise, never mind of which hue it is, that we will resist censorship as much as any autocratic moves.
The writer is a novelist and playwright.