India’s Shameful Failure to Defend Historian of Hinduism

When a blustering Indian demagogue attacked Professor Wendy Doniger’s scholarly book on Hinduism, her publisher caved and pulped her book. Shame on them, writes Tunku Varadarajan—and shame on India.

“YOU NOTICEE.” In strident, upper-case pidgin-legalese, the man—a belligerent Indian enemy of “westernization,” a strutting Hindu fundamentalist with a record of suppressive activism against books that “hurt the sentiments” of Hindus—addressed a legal notice to Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (and a woman who knows more about Hinduism than the man in question could ever hope to learn in this benighted lifetime or the next).

The man, Dinanath Batra, hurled various sections of the Indian Penal Code at Prof. Doniger, accusing her of having outraged his feelings, and those of his co-religionists, in her book The Hindus, published in his country by Penguin India. His accusations, in effect, characterized the book as hate speech. About 70 times in his short legal notice , Mr. Batra intoned the hectoring phrase “YOU NOTICEE,” as he charged Ms. Doniger with being “a woman hungry of sex” (for her highlighting of the sexuality inherent in Hindu mythology), with having “a shallow knowledge of the great Hindu religion” and a “perverse mindset,” with hurting “the feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that [the] Ramayana is a fiction,” with holding “the flag of beef eating and cow slaughter in ancient India,” and—my favorite, in which Penguin India is conjoined as “noticee”—with intending, through the book, “to cause fear and alarm among the Hindus that their religion and religious beliefs are not safe any more and can be trampled with and denigrated, distorted & insulted and hence you have intended to induce and incite them to commit offences against the State and against Public Tranquility.”

In other words, and by Mr. Batra’s argument (above): YOU NOTICEE will make us riot, and burn buses, damage public property, and put the fear of God into law-abiding citizens going about their daily business. Your book will make us misbehave. Your book will make us rampage. So say sorry to us immediately, and get your filthy book out of our country.

And what do you think happened, in the World’s Biggest Democracy? Penguin India buckled. Penguin India wilted. Penguin India wet itself, and entered into an agreement with this semi-literate goon. Penguin India capitulated to blackmail, to the threats of a cultural mobster. Penguin India turned chicken. Shameful to relate (since I know people who work, and run things, there), Penguin India did a deal with the devil. On February 4, at a district court in New Delhi, it undertook to recall and withdraw all copies of The Hindus, and to “pulp”—yes, pulp, destroy, mash, slash, squish, hack, rend, tear, trash, mangle…extinguish—“all the recalled/withdrawn/unsold copies…at its own cost.” Penguin India shall, furthermore, “ensure that the book is completely withdrawn/cleared from the Bharat (Indian Territory) at the earliest, and within a period not exceeding 6 (six) months…” As further proof of its collapse into an abject, feckless heap, Penguin India submitted in the agreement “that it respects all religions worldwide.” This, remember, is an agreement with a man who has taken it upon himself to decide which books Indians can, and cannot, have on their own, private bookshelves; a man who does not respect his fellow citizens enough to let them decide for themselves what they wish to read; a man for whom politically and religiously inconvenient texts are anathema, and to be banished from the land.

Wendy Doniger has come out in defense of Penguin India, arguing that the real villain is the Indian law that permits speech to be suppressed if it offends religious sentiment. I have never met her, and I am inclined to laud her chivalry. She is clearly a person of substance and integrity, and not just of the scholarly kind. I wish, however, that I could be as accepting of Penguin India’s position. For the house to have caved in at a district court—the very lowest rung of India’s long legal ladder—was astonishingly craven. Penguin India was confronting a blustering political activist who questioned its very raison d’être, who questioned the very values on which a liberal, cultured publishing house should stand. It sold out those values, and in doing so it sold out India. The fundamentalist book-pulpers won, and, in winning, have set a precedent for other capitulations in the future…and for the pulping of other books. Shame on you, Penguin India: yours has been a great betrayal.