This is not a ban; it is surrender. There is no nicer way to put it. Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel and agreed to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s award-winning, scholarly, entertaining, and authoritative book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, and to destroy remaining copies within six months.
Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Penguin’s decision is unlikely to be based on literary merit — the book has been on sale in India since 2009 and those who wanted to, have already bought it. Now more will try to buy it through fair means or foul. And Penguin’s decision is possibly made out of expediency — perhaps to cut costs, perhaps to avoid trouble, or perhaps out of concern for the safety of its staff. None of this reflects well on Penguin or on India.
Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti had filed a suit in 2011, seeking the withdrawal of the book, saying the book was written with “a Christian missionary’s zeal” to denigrate Hinduism and show it in a poor light. For the record, Doniger is not a Christian, and even if she were that would be irrelevant — and yet in any case, Hindu nationalists have rarely let facts get in the way of their theories.
Also for the record, when the book came out in 2009, I had asked Doniger about the rise of the more militant brand of Hinduism, which has led to attacks on the works of overseas scholars, including Michael Witzel of Harvard, James Laine who wrote a book on Shivaji, and Paul Courtright who wrote one on Ganesha, and homegrown ones, like D.N. Jha, who wrote that Hindus do eat beef and there’s no religious stricture against it.
Doniger told me then that she had written her book to clear some misunderstandings about Hinduism, and “to counteract the Hindutva misinterpretations of the Ramayana”.
Last night I asked Doniger what she thought about her publisher’s decision. Deeply concerned, she told me: “Penguin has indeed given up the lawsuit, and will no longer publish the book. Of course, anyone with a computer can get the Kindle edition from Penguin, NY, and it’s probably cheaper, too. It is simply no longer possible to ban books in the age of the Internet. For that, and for all the people who have expressed outrage over this, I am deeply grateful.”
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