Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar
16 February, 2014
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Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, wrote a book in 2009, titled “The Hindus: An Alternative History” that became quite popular as a textbook in US universities that taught Hinduism. Many Hindus took exception to some of the content in the book, accusing it of sexualizing Hindu mythological references in a manner that was offensive to them (e.g., an Oedipus complex analysis of Ganesha’s relationship with his father Shiva). There was a court case in India, which ended in an out-of-court settlement whereby Penguin, the publisher of Doniger’s book, agreed to remove all copies of the book from circulation and pulp them.
The reaction from self-styled defenders of secularism has been predictable: outrage. Comparisons are made to the banning of the Satanic Verses; the withdrawal of the book is linked to the rise of the Hindu right-wing; this is further linked to the almost inevitable victory of Narendra Modi in the coming 2014 elections in May; a conclusion is made that “Hindu intolerance” is making free speech impossible in India; lists of past books banned in India are paraded and Doniger’s book is mentioned in the same breath, with a lament on the state of censorship in India; Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of “The Hindu,” asks for Penguin to return his copyright on his book to him and to pulp copies of his book as a protest; Arundhati Roy protests Penguin’s decision, asking them to explain their decision; and “The Hindu” innovatively finds a way to somehow link this event with the 2002 riots in Gujarat and calls it a manifestation of totalitarian tendencies of the Hindu right.
All of these reactions are overblown hyperbole and just plain nonsense. Why? Here are the facts.
1. This is NOT a book ban. Book bans are carried out by the state. The state did not intervene in this case.
2. There is a law in India: section 295A in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, that reads, “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.-- Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6 [citizens of India], 7 [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8 [three years], or with fine, or with both.”
3. The language of section 295A is ambiguous, and allows people to sue anyone who offends, willingly or not, their religious beliefs by writing or speaking publicly about them. But this was not a law created by the Hindu right, or even in independent India. It was a British law, created to protect Islam from any Hindu writing derogatory things about it. All that has happened in this instance was that people have used this intolerant law on the books in India to prosecute something that offended them.
4. A Hindu religious group believed that Doniger’s book was insulting to Hinduism and so filed a lawsuit against Penguin under section 295A of the IPC. After fighting the case in court for some time, Penguin thought it better to settle the case, for reasons known only to them.
5. So, in summary, there was a law that provided relief to those who felt their religious sentiments were hurt by a book; a party that felt its sentiments were hurt filed a legal case; and the defendant settled out of court. There is nothing illegal in this. This is not similar to a case like that of James Laine, who wrote a biography of Shivaji that was violently opposed by the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, leading to the ban of the book after much rioting. In the present case there was no violence; the state never got involved; and the legal process was duly followed.
6. If Hindus displayed intolerance to Wendy Doniger’s writing, they did so within their legal right. I am not going to discuss here whether or not what Doniger wrote was offensive. That is beside the point here. What is relevant is that the law in India gives legal recourse to anyone who feels their religious sentiments are hurt. To say that Hindus should NOT avail of such a law is to DENY them the legal recourse provided by Indian law, and is unfair. Keep in mind that section 295A is equally applicable to Muslims or Christians who feel that their sentiments are hurt by a book or speech.
7. One cannot conclude anything negatively about the Indian courts and judiciary from this case either. Penguin could have waited for the court to rule whether or not the learned judges found that there was something offensive in the book to Hinduism or not and, more importantly, whether the offense was “deliberate and malicious.” Why they did not is not clear; but the statement they released suggested that they believed that the law on the books was ambiguous enough that they could not hope to win the case.
The real culprit in this case is the presence of section 295A in the IPC of 1860 that is still being used today. The presence of this law serves to remind us that in India, the freedom of speech is not absolute. I am no fan of book bans and personally believe that if a book offends you, don’t read it. But section 295A is a reality, and the plaintiffs in this case merely asked for relief under the existing laws.
If Siddharth Varadarajan or Arundhati Roy are truly outraged about what happened, they should expend their energies, not on the dramatics they are indulging in, but in trying to get the offensive law from 1860 amended so that freedom of speech is truly allowed in India. As long as section 295A is on the books, true freedom of speech will not exist in India in matters of religion. It is silly and futile to argue that a law should remain on the books, but no one should avail of its protections. It is something like saying that people should not avail of a tax exemption provided under the tax code. If a particular tax exemption unfairly favours a particular group, the correct recourse would be to lobby to correct the apparent injustice, viz., change the law, not get angry at those who use the tax exemption. And that’s how we should react here as well. Doniger herself has recognized this.
So here is what I propose. I do not like section 295A, and would like to participate in a movement to remove the section from the Indian Penal Code. I hope Siddharth Varadarajan and Arundhati Roy will use their celebrity status to lead this movement. But I seriously doubt this movement will succeed, even if Varadarajan and Roy agree to lead it – not only because of Hindu fundamentalists, but equally because of Muslim and Christian fundamentalists, who have also conveniently used this law to oppress (and sometimes ban) books they didn’t like.