02/12/2014 06:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

Indian Censorship and the Curious Case of Wendy Doniger

Penguin's decision to withdraw controversial scholar Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History has resonated strongly in the academic world, as scholars have questioned what this means for freedom of expression in India.

But the Doniger case is much more nuanced than the typical academic and literary freedom episodes. In fact, it is far more complex than a simple case of book banning, and ironically, the outcome was more mutual than in a typical case of censorship. A simple perusal of the American Library Association's banned book list, for example, will yield countless examples of religious objections to the content within books.

While media coverage has focused on the implications of Penguin's decision to pull the book and destroy all copies in India, there are some important contextual factors to understand to help articulate why this isn't merely a case of religious extremists getting their way (as Doniger has claimed).

For starters, I do not contend that Doniger is anti-Hindu, though many Hindus find her scholarship to be; she expresses great admiration for the tradition. But the book and many of her articles over a 40-year academic career misinterpret facts or pick and choose incidents that conveniently fit a narrative of an erotic, exotic, mythologically rife Hinduism whose portrayal is actually alien, and often insulting, to adherents of that tradition. While we as academics have a right to be concerned about academic freedom and the right to publish, there's also the underrepresented idea of academic integrity. From that standpoint, Doniger's work is certainly questionable.

Her book seems to conjure up facts and dates that don't jibe with any historical consensus, and the list of errors has been dissected by both academic and lay scholars. Doniger titles one of her chapters "Fusion and Rivalry Under the Delhi Sultanate: 650-1500 CE," though the Delhi Sultanate didn't begin until the 13th century. While Doniger does include an accurate timeline in the chapter, she covers nearly a thousand years and blurs the time period of Islamic rule in India, something that most historians would never do. Doniger also whitewashes Islamic rule over India, claiming that violence by Muslim rulers against Hindus has been overstated. That would contradict even the records kept by Muslim scholars of that time, and go against the accounts given by Tamerlane, whose forces ransacked Delhi and killed at least 100,000 Hindus.

She also asserts that Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the 10 Sikh gurus, was assassinated in 1708, while "attending Emperor Aurangzeb." The problem? Emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707 and Guru Gobind Singh was assassinated in 1708 during the reign of Aurangzeb's successor, Emperor Bahadur Shah I. Doniger also claimed, among other things, that Kabir -- a saint patronized by both Hindus and Muslims -- lived from the 1390s to 1448, when he was actually born in 1450.

HAF pointed out these inaccuracies several years ago, but Doniger seemed to pull the "Hindu fundamentalist" card in responding. Penguin's unwillingness to change simple facts, or Doniger's refusal to acknowledge factual inaccuracies, is mind-boggling, as it severely undermines her own academic credibility. It reminds me of how 20th-century Marxist scholar Theodor Adorno would respond to his critics by claiming that they were bamboozled by the system.

The other issue is Doniger's glee in framing an entire religion through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis when even most psychologists have moved away from psychoanalysis as a legitimate means of diagnosis. While there was quite a bit of clamor from right-wing Hindu ideologues about the book, Doniger did miss an important point: her book offended many mainstream Hindus who would have otherwise defended her right to publish her views. After all, Hinduism is itself inherently pluralistic. More alarmingly, Doniger claimed that her book was the "definitive" account of Hinduism, though her historiography seemed to read more like an unauthorized biography of a celebrity.

While the public faces of the controversy in India don't do much to articulate legitimate criticisms of the book, it's foolish to dismiss their case entirely. Unlike in other cases, most compellingly the fatwa issued by Muslim clerics against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, the plaintiffs used the Indian court system and got an out-of-court settlement. Even though Penguin willingly agreed to do this (though it might have been a lot cheaper to just make revisions that reflected facts and attempted to address sensitivities), Doniger claimed that she and her publisher 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." That's also a bit of a melodramatic overstatement -- and quite inaccurate.

Here's what Indian penal code, section 295, says:

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

This law was designed to protect members of all religions, and it has been used selectively over the years. In comparison to hate speech laws we see here, it is an overly broad law, and there are concerns about how to advance pluralism in India when there are different interpretations -- based on faith -- of what constitutes "deliberate and malicious," and how it impacts freedom of speech. Again, Doniger puts the onus of this on "any Hindu," when the law itself sets aside no special protections for Hindus. In fact, the law has been used to ban Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen, as well as sales of their books, to placate Muslim groups, while The Da Vinci Code was banned to please Christians who contended that the book was offensive.

With that being said, the pulling of Doniger's book -- even if Penguin did it willingly -- and the presence of the Indian law curtailing forms of expression about religious groups is a failure of mutual understanding and creative compromise, and does raise concerns about academic freedom. Censoring ideas, no matter how unpopular and offensive they may be, prevents the possibility of even attempting genuine discourse.

Those who sought to have the book banned must reconcile themselves to the perverse irony that taking The Hindus out of the Indian market will pump new life into a flawed scholarly work and adversely impact Indian scholars who actually seek to counter her claims through constructive discourse. No book should be banned or restricted, and even if Doniger takes quite a bit of creative freedom (and wantonly misreads Hindu philosophy and texts), one cannot hope to ban ignorance.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post asserted that "Doniger also claimed ... that Kabir -- a saint patronized by both Hindus and Muslims -- lived from the 1390s to 1448, when he was actually born in 1450." In fact, his date of birth is disputed, so in the absence of unequivocal confirmation that Doniger's claim is inaccurate, this sentence has been removed. Additionally, the passage on Doniger's treatment of the Delhi Sultanate has been revised with more details for clarity.