Penguin India is now in the business of banning books, in an action that has shocked writers and free speech campaigners inside and outside the country. The publisher is recalling all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History, will pulp them and ensure their withdrawal “from the Bharat” (Indian territory) within a period “not exceeding six (6) months”.
That pledge is revealed in an extract from the minutes of an agreement between Penguin and an 84-year-old school principal, Dinanath Batra. Penguin’s capitulation before Batra’s offensive is shocking. Batra has denounced Wendy Doniger’s book as “malicious”, “dirty” and “perverse”.
He is a cat’s paw for the Save Education Movement (Shiksha Andolan Bachao), a Hindu fundamentalist group. It wants to purge India’s education and bookshops of all texts that it believes threaten Hindu culture. There is a wider political context as India prepares for general elections in three months time. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to score a major victory over the secular Congress Party.
The ban and pulping has aroused a torrent of anger and protest from scores of Indian writers, film makers, journalists, historians, novelist Arundhati Roy and many in the Hindu press. Roy has challenging the Indian state over many issues, including its repression in Kashmir and has courageously denounced BJP leader Narendra Modi.
Business interests have succeeded in suppressing investigative books and art. One of India’s most celebrated painters, the late Maqbool Fida Husain, was forced to flee the country in 2006 after attacks on his paintings.
Mukul Kesavan, a distinguished historian and cricket writer, has documented the retreat before the nationalists not only by Penguin India, but other publishers including Bloomsbury India and Oxford University Press which have recently withdrawn titles.
Kesavan writes: “Penguin’s response to intimidation-by-litigation is even more dismaying. First, the case against the book seems borderline farcical. Doniger’s sins of commission include allegedly erroneous dates, inaccurate maps, her use of psychoanalytic categories and offensive metaphors as well as ‘Christian missionary zeal’. Wendy Doniger is Jewish. If there ever was a test case that a publisher stood to win, it was this one.”
The assault on writers runs far deeper than an attack on freedom of speech in India. It is an expression of a deep and growing political and cultural crisis as globalisation has failed to deliver for the mass of Indians. The long-term inability of the Congress Party to fulfil the aspirations of its supporters as it seeks to cling on to power is self-evident.
As the DNA website notes: “The best that can be said for the [Indian] state is that it is equal opportunity in its cravenness, willing to back obscurantists of all stripes. If it quailed at the prospect of angering hard line Muslim elements with Rushdie, Nasreen and R V Bhasin, it has accommodated Christian outrage when it comes to the Da Vinci Code and the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism who took outrage at Ramanujan and Doniger.”
India is part of the “Fragile Five”, as the market economies of Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Indonesia have become known. Their rampant growth rates have slowed down. The modernisation wrought by India’s entry into the global economy has been accompanied by a shocking crisis amongst its small farmers, once the country’s economic backbone.
In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, more than 290,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. In India, as in the other Fragile Fives and Brics, like Russia, China, Brazil and Turkey – not to mention Ukraine - the heavy hand of censorship and repression of journalist countries poses the question of who holds power.
In India, “no one in the country or outside it quite knows how the country is run”, according to one political commentator, Annika Neujahr. This does indeed raise fundamental constitutional and philosophical questions in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.
A World to Win secretary