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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 continued…