February 13, 2014

Penguin pulls book from shelves in India because of ‘hurt feelings’


This book hurt some feelings. Clearly the only recourse is to destroy every copy in an entire subcontinent, right?

This book hurt some feelings. Clearly the only recourse is to destroy every copy in an entire subcontinent, right?

After a drawn out legal challenge from Hindu nationalists, Penguin Books India has voluntarily recalled all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by respected historian Wendy Doniger. Apparently Hindu fascists are not so into, you know, alternatives.

As the BBC reports, the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed two criminal complaints and a civil suit against Penguin over the book, the first in 2010. Penguin’s settlement of the case has been read by many as a capitulation.

Nilanjana Bhowmick of TIME spoke to Dinanath Batra, President of Shiksha Bachao Andolan, about his objections to the book. Batra says in that interview, “In the tiny world we live, we have to try and create heaven out of hell.” Well, that’s rather stark and a little ominous. He also said “our movement is aimed at cleansing distortions from education in India,” which, okay, that’s even more ominous. What did he object to in the book? “Her agenda is to malign Hinduism and hurt the feelings of Hindus.” That seems the most … wait. What?

That’s right, Shiksha Bachao Andolan is angry because Wedy Doniger hurt their feelings. It’s even in the text of the suit! Doniger quotes it in an open response to the settlement, posted in the Wall Street Journal: 

[Doniger] has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction. “Placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, wholived at various times……….” (P.662) This breaches section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).’

This bears repeating: the group sued because writing that the Ramayana is not the literal truth hurt their feelings. And Penguin pulled the book. I would call that incredible, but then, I live in the good old U.S. of A, a nation ruled, in essence, by various brands of fringe scriptural literalist.

Doniger is understandably disappointed, but not with Penguin. She writes:

I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit.

They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.

Others are less understanding. Arundhati Roy, another Penguin author, published an outraged open letter to her publisher in the Times of India. “What was it that terrified you? … So far I have had been more than happy to be published by Penguin. But now?”

And it is not just a matter of pulling the books. A stipulation of the settlement, posted here, is that these books be pulped.

Whether or not Penguin’s actions were premature, we can agree that Batra and his surprisingly thin-skinned cohort should probably toughen the hell up,  stop with the “hurt feelings,” and take the advice of historian Ramachandra Guha, quoted by the BBC, who writes “The answer to a book one doesn’t like is another book, not a ban, or legal action, or physical intimidation.”


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.