The decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History from the Indian market has been met with a roar of protest. In India, writers have wagged their fingers at the publisher and at Indian society in general for its growing intolerance. In the West, alarm bells are being rung at what this event seems to portend: the rise of Narendra Modi and the now much-prophesied inevitable destruction of India and its descent into the equally long-prophesied fundamentalist Hindu fascist nation of Western oped-page lore. The book, of course, has received a second lease of life around the world, and has inspired (if not always been read by) legions of free-speech supporters. This much is understandable, and even laudable.
However, sacrosanct as free speech is in a democracy, and worrisome as religious intolerance has become, there is a fundamental issue that commentators seem to be missing out on, if not actively ignoring. Values like free speech make sense, and hence must be examined, only within the context of the power relations that play out in a particular issue.
Now, if this were a situation playing out wholly in an Indian domestic context, then the case for lamenting the martyrdom of an author, a book and indeed a way of life itself, would all be appropriate — even if the contents of the book were questionable (and they are in this case). The rights of a powerless author and more importantly, a powerless argument, even if controversial, deserve our passionate defence against censorship. For example, in the US, one would feel inclined to celebrate the free speech claims of an independent blogger or citizen-journalist over, say, a celebrity “news anchor” backed by a warmongering, racist, sexist billionaire media giant’s vanity news channel having to backtrack slightly after spouting nonsense against minorities (and realities).
The world of scholarship and publishing is not very different. Certain discourses, and certain authors, by virtue of their location in privileged nations, classes, races and education in equally privileged institutions, sometimes operate like the vainglorious news anchors of monopolistic media giants. It is not who they are as human beings or the politics of their ideas, either. It is just the fact that their privilege elevates them to a position where they tend to forget that some of the criticism of their work may actually be valid too. It is doubly ironic that they do so, because they often position themselves and their work firmly on the side of the underdog. Just because there is a fringe element that expresses its anger about their work in an uncivil manner, they assume that anyone who disagrees with their work is a religious fundamentalist. They presume, in other words, that their vision of a religion is the only way for members of that religion to be liberal, progressive and secular. For members of that religion, already tired of centuries of colonial derision of their philosophies and cultures, such a strong intolerance of their realities, and not merely sensitivities, from privileged writers bestowed with global recognition as experts, seems like more of the same.
Hinduism may not be what a few rightwing ideologues have tried to assert that it is. But it is also not what a handful of scholars and writers positioned by their privileged location with a near-total monopoly on representing Hinduism in the world today have made it out to be. Virtually everyone who grew up with a shrine in their homes and a sense of adoration in their hearts today for the gods who serve as their inner moral anchors (and outer wish-granters too, but that is another side of the culture of faith) can see through the vast ignorance, insolence and insanity of the discourse that masquerades as knowledge about Hinduism in the privileged halls of Western academe and media today.
Yet, not one hint about these concerns will find mention in the American media. It is a hall of mirrors, bouncing off the same cliché that passes for commentary about Hinduism and India today. Ironically, the same commentators would be the first (and for that I would salute them) to condemn any kind of pseudo-scholarship, orientalism and political conservatism when it comes to women, gays, African-Americans, Muslims and other minorities. But when it comes to Hindus, they have assumed a convenient contradiction; in their writing, “the Hindu” is an elite and oppressor, and the villain of the story, though in the halls of academia, the media and the privileged space of global high culture, he or she remains as marginalised, if not more, than other supposed minorities (Silicon Valley success stories notwithstanding).
Under the pretext of fighting Hindutva, they have advanced a longstanding and pernicious discourse of Hinduphobia in the West and ended up turning their bogeyman into the mainspring of cultural and political will in India and the diaspora today. Unless they recognise that it is only their privilege and not their scholarship or their integrity, and certainly not an element of truth and reality, that has sustained their monopoly over the debate, they will soon find themselves in a position of serious irrelevance as far as modern Hindus and Indians, liberal and conservative, are concerned. Indian censorship may be disturbing, but is no match for the invisible censorship against reality that is global racism.
Juluri is professor of media studies, University of San Francisco. He is the author of ‘The Mythologist’, published by Penguin