We’re not two months into 2014 and the year’s list of banned books in India is already growing. Bloomsbury India recalled “The Descent of Air India” by Jitender Bhargava, because of its criticism of India’s national airline. And now the depressing news that Penguin India has agreed to withdraw and destroy—“pulp”—all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.
Doniger is Mircea Eliade Professor of The History of Religion at the University of Chicago. She has published widely, deeply, and movingly on many aspects of Hindu tradition, drawing on an astonishing range of Sanskrit texts—both mainstream and obscure.
Her work has drawn much criticism from various groups purporting to speak for Hinduism. Early criticism was led by Rajiv Malhotra, a New Jersey businessman-turned-Hinduism-advocate. His widely-read online essays provoked much anger against scholars of Hinduism. This is old news; Doniger’s career has been trolled for decades. Yeah, someone threw an egg at her, too.
My copy of Doniger’s The Hindus is currently on a ship with the rest of my books, somewhere between New York and Australia. It is truly an alternative history. It tells a history of Hinduism from the perspective of the oppressed, of women, of marginalised communities, and of animals. As many have pointed out, pulping Doniger’s books silences those voices. But these voices exist. Discussion of their existence does not merit book destruction, and should never constitute a criminal offence. Nor should printing classic works of Indian art on book covers.
The Hindus was published in 2009 and received positive, mixed, and also negative reviews in India. It has sold very well; I even spotted pirated photocopies at Gandhi Maidan in Patna in 2010. So why is the book being destroyed? The legal complaint against Doniger and her publisher reads like a joke. She is titled “YOU ADDRESSEE.” She is critiqued as a “woman hungry for sex,” who looks for sex in everything, who calls the Ramayana tradition a “fiction,” and who doesn’t acknowledge that the poet-singer Mirabai lived for 150 years. The case was successful, as Penguin India settled out of court. They will cease selling the book in India, and will destroy all remaining copies.
The group behind this current case is the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti—the same that successfully campaigned to have Ramanujan’s celebrated essay on the Ramayana tradition struck from Delhi University’s history syllabus in 2011. This is outrageous. There’s no more brilliant piece on Indian culture, religion, and performance than Ramanujan’s “300 Ramayanas.” Dina Nath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, says this is just the beginning. With his recent successes, I don’t know why he wouldn’t continue.
To her credit, Doniger does not publicly blame Penguin India for the pulping. Instead she blames the Indian legal code that criminalises so-called blasphemous writing that might cause a violent response. Why the Shiksha Bachao Andolan would cheer being characterised as so quick to irrational violence is beyond me. Nevertheless, Penguin must have known that Doniger’s book would be controversial. So many are asking: Why are they capitulating now? And this while their current catalogue—Penguin India’s own catalogue!—promotes Snehal Shingavi’s translation of the ground-breaking 1932 short story collection Angaaray as a sizzling and inflammatory collection of banned Urdu texts. How long before this get pulped? Or should we just pulp the catalogue?