THE BLOG

Ban, Ban, Our Own Taliban

03/06/2014 07:44 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2014

Indian governments, irrespective of political affiliations, are quick to ban books, especially those that "hurt religious sentiments of a community." Thus India was the first country to proscribe Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses -- even before Saudi Arabia did, which takes some doing. But recently, books have begun to be recalled, not by government decree but by publishers who have -- and there's no polite way of saying it -- chickened out.

The latest to join this yellow streak is not some fly by night purveyor of books, but Penguin, one of the world's biggest publishing houses, and if memory serves right, the group that once fought a mighty legal battle in England to overturn a ban on Lady Chatterly's Lover.

The book Penguin has agreed to jettison is Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History. In the India of today, anything that is "alternative," or takes an unconventional look at history, biography or mythology (among other things) becomes unacceptable to some fanatical group or the other. These outfits have a rather forceful way of reviewing books, and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (The Save Education Committee) seems to have done their thumbs down pretty strongly. So strongly that Penguin has not only agreed to withdraw all copies, but to pulp them too.

Predictably, this has become Subject Number One for discussion among the chattering classes. What most commentators have said is not so much about Doniger's alternative history as about her subject, Hinduism. I suspect that`s partly because not too many people have actually read the book -- it's scholarly, academic, and its size (800 pages plus) is intimidating. I tried to get a copy the day I heard news of the withdrawal. "Sorry," was the answer from all bookshops. "We are sold out." Thanks to the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, its aim to stop people reading Doniger has had the effect of people reading Doniger who wouldn't have read Doniger. Penguin is probably (and secretly) laughing all the way to the bank.

Every commentator, in his or her own way, has made the central point that the Samiti, its chief Dina Nath Batra and their tribe of Hindu zealots all over the world, are trying to make Hinduism what it is not: puritanical, austere, devoid of joy and color. By doing this, we can add, they are trying to make the religion they profess to defend similar to the religions they presumably dislike, Islam and Christianity. In language which is colorful in its own way, the Samiti said in a statement, "The whole Hindu society is angry to see Lord Krishna encircled by naked women and sitting on the buttock of naked women on the cover of the book." You can't, of course, judge a book by its cover, but even the cover isn't half as salacious as this Angree Hindu Society is making it out to be: it's the usual playful scene of Krishna and semi-clad gopis (milkmaids), a scene we have seen so often in paintings and illustrations that we neither notice it, nor look at it as being provocative.

The fact that Batra & Co object to the depiction now, shows that many Indians still haven't got over the old "how will foreigners see us" syndrome. It's ok for us in India to see Krishna cavorting with Radha and a crowd of gopis, this group seems to be saying, but not for foreigners to do so. In doing this the zealous defenders of our faith again achieve the exact opposite of what they set out to do: the foreigners they are subconsciously trying to impress, think less of Indians because of the double standards we adopt.

The fight over Doniger's book, from the start, was an unequal battle. On one side, was the scholarly writer, a University of Chicago professor with two doctorates (in Sanksrit and in Indian Studies); on the other, people who send out a statement which says, "All Hindu diotias, Gods and Goddess great persons and revolutionist are worstly insulted in this book, for unknown reasons." And guess who wins in this unequal battle? The Angree Hindu Society, of course.

What made Penguin cave in? Was it because the sales of Doniger's book were so meager that it didn't justify continuing the case they were contesting in court, a case they would almost certainly have won, given the generally liberal track record of India's higher courts? Or was it because of the possibility of violence suggested by Penguin`s statement which says, "We have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can"? In either case, the publishing house comes out badly: When you are a publisher, you become willy-nilly defender of thought and word, and by an unwritten code when driven to the wall, commercial interests should become subservient to the far nobler aim of protecting free speech and thought. As for threats to their employees, did they go to the police and ask for protection? Bollywood producers who make no claims to be interested in intellectual discourse, routinely face extortion threats from the underworld which are far more frightening and real. Do they then stop making films?

Penguin's action is part of a recent and disturbing trend. Just weeks earlier, Bloomsbury quietly withdrew Jitender Bhargava's The Descent of Air India. Written by an Air India insider, the book is an expose of the willfully wrong decisions taken by its management to bankrupt the airline.The publisher caved in when ex Minister of Aviation Praful Patel threatened to take them to court. This was notwithstanding the fact that the publisher had carefully vetted the manuscript before publication, and Bhargava had documentation to back up whatever he was saying. There have been other books on "important" people which have similarly been suppressed, like a recent book about Subrata Roy and his Sahara empire, even though Roy faces imminent arrest anytime now.

What does this tell us? That India's ever expanding publishing industry will now print only books that are considered safe? Will no one be able to question conventional wisdom about history, politics and mythology? Will no one be able to expose the wrongdoings of politicians and corporate leaders? It's a frightening thought, made even more so by the country's likely future political dispensation.

Prime Minister aspirant, Narendra Modi's Gujarat was the first and only state in India to ban Joseph Lelyveld's book on Gandhi. No wonder Dina Nath Batra, the triumphant vanquisher of Doniger and alternative histories, said in an interview to The New York Times, that soon the RSS (the right wing Hindu organization) will have the power to suppress all books it doesn't like. "The good times," he said, "are coming."