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Dishonesty on Doniger

Self-proclaimed liberals and proponents of free speech are selective in their protests

Updated: February 21, 2014 8:52 am
Trench soldiers of “liberalism” are threatening and condemning the publishers of the book. Trench soldiers of “liberalism” are threatening and condemning the publishers of the book.

Blame it on the Indian Penal Code, says Penguin, publishers of the American “scholar” Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, for their decision to pulp its Indian edition. Despite this clear confession of the reason for the book’s withdrawal, the trench soldiers of “liberalism” are threatening and condemning the publishers. More, they are targeting their ire on the so-called Hindu right.

That itself shows their bias. Surprisingly, the same liberal left came down on the government, asking it to ban The Satanic Verses, did not rush to save Taslima Nasreen from a screaming mob in Hyderabad for her novel in which the Islamic orthodoxy found anti-Islamic sentences, or protest when a ban was imposed on Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul for its hints at Mahatma Gandhi and his friend Hermann Kallenbach’s relationship.

As for another great liberal, the Congress, why did its Abhishek Manu Singhvi, as counsel for Sonia Gandhi, go to court to block Spanish writer Javier Moro’s novel The Red Sari? Moro was accused of writing around Sonia Gandhi. Even if that inference is true, it would not affect the sentiments of millions, and why can’t the great liberals and followers of Jawaharlal Nehru take in their stride some lampooning of their leaders? The Congress government in Jaipur resorted to a dirty trick to keep world-renowned author Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival two years back, just because the Islamists and their “secular” followers would not even countenance the author of Satanic Verses.

But that is not all. From one left liberal to another, including “secularists”, the cry has gone round that, with the publisher withdrawing the book, freedom of expression is in danger in this country. Is that the truth? Has the book been banned, and who wanted the ban? The fact is that nobody, not even the so-called Hindu right, asked for any ban.

The simple fact is that the publisher bowed out in response to a complaint filed by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti against the book. The complaint was only pointing out in its suit certain flaws, factual errors and deliberate attempts to insult Hindu sentiments in the book. That is not  asking for banning the book.

The publishers had the option of contesting the claim or appealing to a higher court. They could have countered the accusation in the complaint with their version of the facts. As the complaint was registered in court under the provisions of the IPC, the law itself could have been challenged as violating the freedom of speech provisions in the Constitution. In that, the self-proclaimed liberals should have targeted not the publisher but the IPC itself, or its Section 295. They did not condemn the IPC’s clause when it was used to ban Satanic Verses or several other books. They did not go to court when Nasreen or Rushdie were targeted in India.

Before we deal with the book itself, let us assert that Hindus do not require any lesson from the so-called liberals on pluralism, tolerance and welcoming critical reviews of either the vast expanse of the Hindu religion or its traditions and literary or other cultural content. Hinduism itself is a pluralist religion, starting with the fundamental thesis that while the truth is one, the pundits speak about it in different ways (ekam satyam, vipra bahuda vadanti).

The countries west of the Indian subcontinent have a long history of burning alive or executing heretics. In their tradition, all three religions originating there asserted that only they were right and others wrong. In contrast, a Hindu India gave a secure place in its territory to those who were oppressed elsewhere for their beliefs. The Jews, the Parsis and countless other communities were given protection by Hindu kings. But the moment other religions acquired political power in this country, they started placing before the people the choice between converting to their faith or the sword, much against Hindu tradition.

Speaking about the impugned book itself, no one would have scoured it had it been a truly academic inquiry about Hinduism or any aspect of it. What is wrong with the book is the selectivity on one hand, and the use of odd events to debunk the religion and its followers and its timeless civilisation. No doubt all inquiries, however distasteful, should be welcome in the true spirit of intellectual freedom. But when biased people pretend to be professors and put out books that are passed on as serious intellectual inquiry, someone needs to protest the sham.

The poverty of the quality of intellectual inquiry is evident right from the cover picture of Doniger’s book. The cover depicts an erotic image claimed to be from a temple in Odisha. It is not. Critics of the book were quick to pick up several such untrue claims in the book.

Had it been only a question of false claims or the depiction of untruth as a true picture of the Hindus, it could still have been dismissed as nothing more than the outcome of a biased mindset. But when such false claims form the bedrock of the denigration of a people and their culture as well as religion, it certainly comes within the mischief adumbrated in Section 295 of the IPC.

It would be an act of being honest with themselves if our liberals accepted the charge that the entire exercise of the book is the fashionable trend in the West, especially in America, of denigrating India, more specifically Hinduism and Hindus, since 150 years ago, when Swami Vivekananda took that country by storm through his address to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago with his exploration of Hinduism, overshadowing all the exponents of other religions.

The writer is national vice president, BJP

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