India: PEN protests withdrawal of best-selling book

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PEN protests the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History 

In 2009, Penguin published The Hindus: An Alternative History by American Indologist Professor Wendy Doniger. The book became a number one bestseller in the non-fiction category in India and received positive reviews in the international media. It has also been subject to criticism, including an online petition highlighting supposed factual inaccuracies and calling for the immediate withdrawal of the book signed by more than 10,000 people.

In 2011, Dinanath Batra of Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a case against the publisher, claiming that the book was offensive to Hindus and therefore in violation of Section 295A of the Indian penal code which prohibits ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.’

According to the petitioners’ lawyer, on 10 February 2014 the publisher agreed to withdraw the book and to pulp recalled, withdrawn and unsold copies at their own cost.

Our colleagues from the PEN All-India Centre in Mumbai and the PEN Delhi Centre have expressed their grave disappointment at the news, and published a statement from Professor Doniger:

I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate…. 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 Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book.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.

Read her full statement here

On 14 February, Penguin India issued a statement on the case in which they echo Doniger’s concern about freedom of expression in the country:

The Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.

This is, we believe, an issue of great significance not just for the protection of creative freedoms in India but also for the defence of fundamental human rights.

As former trustee and chair of English PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee Salil Tripathi states in his piece on the controversy, Penguin’s disappointing surrender:

Those who disagreed with Doniger had options—to protest, to argue, to publish their own book as response, and if they had a copy, to shut it. Nobody is being forced to read it. Now, go to your electronic readers, buy it, download it, read it; if you go abroad, get copies—there’s no ban on its import; and reinforce the idea that a pluralistic India does not have singular views. India thrives in its diversity and plurality—its culture and its opinions.

The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger is available from Foyles.

TAKE ACTION

Sign the petition

Our colleagues at PEN Delhi are supporting this Change.org petition calling for the reform of Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Sign the petition

Send a letter of appeal

Write to the Indian authorities protesting the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and calling for the reform of Sections 153A and 295A. A sample letter is provided below but it is always better if you put the appeal in your own words.

Send a message of support

If you would like to send a message of support to Wendy Doniger, please email your message to cat@englishpen.org and we will pass it on.

 

H.E. Mr. Ranjan Mathai
High Commission of India,
India House
Aldwych
London
WC2B 4NA
Fax Number: 020 7836 4331
Email: min.coord@hcilondon.in

Your Excellency

I am writing to you as a supporter of English PEN, the founding centre of the international association of writers, to express my concern about the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

In 2009, Penguin India published The Hindus: An Alternative History by American Indologist Professor Wendy Doniger. The book became a number one bestseller in the non-fiction category in India and received positive reviews in the international media. It has also been subject to criticism, including an online petition highlighting supposed factual inaccuracies and calling for the immediate withdrawal of the book signed by more than 10,000 people.

In 2011, Dinanath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a case against the publisher, claiming that the book was offensive to Hindus and therefore in violation of Section 295A of the Indian penal code which prohibits ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.’

According to the petitioners’ lawyer, on 10 February 2014 the publisher agreed to withdraw the book and to pulp recalled, withdrawn and unsold copies at their own cost.

The author, Wendy Doniger, and publisher, Penguin India, have raised concerns about the state of freedom of expression in India today and the impact that this will have on writers, publishers and readers. In a statement issued today, Penguin states:

The Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.

This is, we believe, an issue of great significance not just for the protection of creative freedoms in India but also for the defence of fundamental human rights.

I share the concerns raised by Professor Doniger, Penguin India, and the many writers and academics who have spoken out about this case, and join the call for the reform of Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code in order to greater protect freedom of expression in India.

I would welcome your comments on my appeal.

Yours sincerely

Comments

19 Comments on India: PEN protests withdrawal of best-selling book - Leave a comment

Steve Foulger

History is ultimately about interpretations and the search for the ‘truth’ is best served by dialogue and discussion, the clash and combination of ideas and not blunt force attempts to ban books that you don’t like. In this instance Wendy Doniger’s – a renowned expert on Hinduism and not a critic of it – has written a book which merely presents a different interpretation to that of her detractors. As such to cave into demands that it should be withdrawn is craven and a dereliction of duty to academic freedom and free expression. I am only echoing John Stuart Mill when I say that to stifle speech, to prevent argumentation, dispute and the free exchange of opinions is to hobble thought and progress,and to arrogate to yourself the right to say what is sayable by others is patronising and damaging and wrong

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Cat Lucas

Thanks to everyone that has been sending us messages of support to pass on to Wendy Doniger. Wendy has just written to say thank you – “These are lovely to read. Do keep them coming if they keep coming! Yours gratefully, Wendy”…

For those interested in sending her a message, please email me on cat@englishpen.org and we’ll pass it on. Thank you.

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