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With the publisher’s cave-in on Wendy Doniger’s book, the republic of ideas and debate shrinks again.
With a stroke of the pen on a legal document, the publisher, Penguin India, has committed to “recall, withdraw and pulp” all copies in the country of Wendy Doniger’s encyclopaedic and cautiously titled bestseller, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The commitment was made in an out-of-court settlement with a Delhi-based group called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, which had dragged the publisher to court, claiming to be affronted by various aspects of the book, including nudity on its cover and its reading of changing renditions of the Ramayana narrative.
Capping four years of isolated agitations (in the United States, where Doniger is based, and India) against her analysis and the analytical tools she brings to her academic work, Penguin’s insupportable surrender to a legal petition is a chilling reminder of our progressively shrinking resolve to collectively contest assaults on free speech and debate.
It is a bewildering turn for the Indian arm of the publishing house that derives great pride for having pushed the envelope for free speech in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960s Britain. When a publisher does not defend to the last its writer’s right to be read — the book is available in overseas territories, so the pulping is not based on a rethink on the merits of the book — the republic of ideas and debate is in trouble. However, it is crucial to see the political and administrative landscape in which this development has come.
Prominent sections of the establishment in India have long abdicated their commitment to a defence of the written word, forsaking the liberal strategy of allowing a text to be contested legally — and legally alone — on whatever grouse, and instead even abetting intimidation as a tool for bringing censorship. It is to India’s shame that it was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Since then, through the vandalisation that hounded a scholarly biography of Shivaji out of circulation, the message has been clear.
The recent withdrawal by Oxford University Press and Delhi University of an essay by A.K. Ramanujan was a capitulation to expressions of intolerance by rightwing Hindutva groups similar to those aflutter about Doniger’s analysis.
The message they send is that contested analyses and narratives will not be challenged in debate, but debate on anything that agitated groups perceive to be unaligned to their puritanical, artificially compact worldview will be suffocated. They have got their way.