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Yet another book withdrawn and pulped by the publisher under pressure. The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, is the pulping of liberal India. The agreement by the publisher to withdraw it is like putting a contract out on free expression. In India you publish at your peril. It is in a shockingly long line of books and art withdrawn from free circulation one way or the other, sometimes against the law, sometimes in the garb of law.
India is a democracy, but its reputation as a bastion of liberal values is dimming by the day. The argumentative Indian is being replaced by the offended Indian, the tolerant Indian by the intolerant mob, the reflective citizen by the hurt communal mobiliser, the courageous Indian by the cowardly thug who needs the state to protect it against every argument, the pious Indian by the ultimate blasphemer who thinks he needs to protect the gods rather than the gods being there to protect him. Whether this is a tiny minority or represents the majority is beside the point. The point is that the assault on free expression is winning. How is liberal India being silenced?
Liberal India is being silenced because its joy at exposing hypocrisy is far greater than its commitment to defending freedom. Every time a book is under assault, the same tiresome argument breaks out. “Oh, you did not speak when so and so was banned. You did not speak when Taslima Nasreen was the target, or when Jitender Bhargava was ordered to withdraw his book on Air India.” Or there is the partisan division: you did not object to what the Congress did to Salman Rushdie, or the CPM in West Bengal.
The point is that we spend all our psychic energies in exposing each other, not in defending values. If freedom is to survive, we have to set aside this debate on hypocrisy. It devours all energy. But it also legitimises the disposition that is at the heart of banning books: a fragile ego that takes joy in revenge, rather than taking pride in freedom. Let us get on with the task of defending the core values.
Liberal India has been silenced because it never understood that toleration does not, to use Govind Ranade’s phrase, come in halves. You cannot pick and choose when to be tolerant. You cannot choose to be tolerant along partisan lines. Neither can you choose to be tolerant based on what you think are distinctions between good and bad scholarship, serious and scurrilous books. These distinctions are a good basis for criticism; they are not the best basis for deciding whom the law will protect. And R.V. Bhasin, author of a continued…