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The Wendy Doniger controversy: An Alternative View

February 17, 2014 15:39 IST

In any controversy, the participants cannot decide who is right or wrong. A democracy has a process in place to settle these disputes: the judiciary. Dinanath Batra in true democratic fashion availed of that opportunity citizen and Penguin’s decision was the outcome of a legitimate legal battle, says Vivek Gumaste.

The high decibel chorus of protests emanating from prominent columnists, eminent historians and noted authors post Penguin’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History appears at the outset to be a rational and laudable response to an ostensibly egregious act; a pristine moral stance that keeps the flag of liberty flying high and one that can possibly brook no credible opposition.

But on closer scrutiny, this diatribe falls apart coming across, at best, as a narrow simplistic view; a black and white characterisation that fails to capture the vital shades of gray incorporated in this altercation and a snap shot in time that intentionally photoshops the contentious precedents of a more extensive ideological landscape.

At worst it stands out as a contrived machination aimed at maliciously denigrating an opposing ideology under the garb of protecting a fundamental tenet of democracy. Shorn of all the hoopla and cut to the chase, paradoxically though it may sound too many, Penguin’s capitulation, the outcome of a legal challenge is in reality a blow for genuine freedom of speech.

A recall of our post-independent history is germane to the understanding of this current controversy. Nehruvian ‘secularism’ one of the founding principles of our democracy was a flawed concept not only in its construct but more importantly in its practice: it belittled  Hindu sensibilities, made short shrift of Hindu concerns and more importantly stifled the voice of the Hindu.

The cry of the civilizationaly wounded Hindu, the result of centuries of alien subjugation was never taken seriously, being waived away as either a fantastic hallucination or as hate rant. Rational attempts to explain the need for a Hindu resurgence failed to find a platform. Even before one could make an argument, he/she was labeled with derogatory epithets like ‘communal’ and ‘Nazi’ and consigned to the dog house. There was no attempt to engage in a serious dialogue or logical debate: shout down your opponent and deprive him of an opportunity by indirect censorship was the accepted strategy that was practiced ruthlessly for years in the pre-internet era.

Every ideology regardless of its absurdity or validity, every grievance whether perceived or real has the right to expression in a democracy as long as it fulfills these two tenets:  it does not spew hate and it does not advocate physical violence.

In vogue then was a sub-culture of subtle authoritarianism and which exists even now to a degree in some sections of the English language media of this country that targets and suppresses a specific thread of thought, namely the Hindu viewpoint: a complete anti-thesis of the concept of freedom of speech. This verdict under the aegis of a court of law is a fitting rebuttal to that sub-culture and it’s under handed method of undermining free speech.

American academic circles abetted by a prejudiced Indian expatriate lobby also serves as an arena for such contorted behavior with Hindus being denied a platform for their views as Koenraad Elst, the Belgian writer and Orientalist writing in his blog indicates: “…there is no level playing field, and the American academics including Wendy herself have done their best never to give the Hindus a fair hearing .”(Banning Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus.  February 12).

Is Wendy Doniger, the victim of a zealous religious onslaught sans logic or substance as is alleged?   No. Apart from the current petition filed by Dinanath Batra of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, Penguin was hit with a similar petition in 2010 that was signed online by over 11,000 signatories from all walks of life. Here is the preamble to that petition:

“The following is a petition from concerned signatories to the Penguin Group asking for an apology for the publication of the factually incorrect and offensive book The Hindus-An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. We expect Penguin Group to withdraw the book immediately. The Hindus: An Alternative History is rife with numerous errors in its historical facts and Sanskrit translations. These errors and misrepresentations are bound and perhaps intended to mislead students of Indian and Hindu history. Throughout the book, Doniger analyses revered Hindu Gods and Goddess using her widely discredited psychosexual Freudian theories that modern, humanistic psychology has deemed limiting. These interpretations are presented as hard facts and not as speculations. …interpretations of practicing Hindus are simply ignored or bypassed without the unsuspecting reader knowing this to be the case.”

The list of factual historical errors highlighted in the petition would make any true academic cringe with shame and the outlandish theories postulated in the book would be ridiculed outright if analysed in isolation without Doniger’s exalted professorship affixed to it.

Coming to my next query: What do individuals’ hurt by this book do? Keep quiet and allow Doniger and her ilk to get away with it? Or challenge her using the processes available in a democracy?

In any controversy, the participants cannot decide who is right or wrong. A democracy has a process in place to settle these disputes: the judiciary. Dinanath Batra in true democratic fashion availed of that opportunity citizen and Penguin’s decision was the outcome of a legitimate legal battle.

Batra did not vandalise bookstores in “Taliban’ style or make a bonfire of Doniger’s book. Therefore to lump this case with all the other previous instances of arson and looting that coerced a ban on newspaper articles or books is to deliberately obfuscate the picture: a clear indicator of a hidden agenda.

Penguin’s statement in which it alludes to ‘a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment,’ suggests that threat of physical intimidation was at the heart of this retreat: another attempt at clouding the issue at hand. Nothing can be farther from the truth as Monika Arora, advocate for Batra (Outlook, February 14. An Anti-Hindu Mindset) avers:

‘Hence the aforementioned people are…damning the group of eminent, educated people who out of their conviction did not resort to any violence but adopted purely legal, civilised means to approach the court of law for a legal remedy for their legitimate legal grievances.’

A newspaper editorial captioned its lead article with the heading: ‘Withdrawal of Doniger book highlights sway of Taliban-like forces in India.’  (Times of India, February 13). In fact, it is those worthies on the other side of this divide who are behaving like the ‘Taliban’. First, they lack the grace or maturity to accept an adverse outcome inimical to their self-centered world view. They trash the courts and the judiciary and hope to get their way by throwing their weight around

Second in lieu of a logical counter argument, they resort to name calling like a peevish schoolboy/schoolgirl hurting from defeat at a game of sport. Critiquing Penguin’s decision Arundhati Roy rants (Tell Us, Please, What Is It That Scared You So? Outlook, February 13): The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning… but they are not in power. Not yet. And you've already succumbed?

Ramachandra Guha, the historian in an otherwise thought provoking pondering cannot control a low jab at ‘narrow-minded bigots’: “It is a sad commentary on the state of our nation, that a bunch of narrow-minded bigots (claiming to speak in the name of 'Hinduism') can so easily have their well-researched, very readable, and deeply insightful works banned or burnt.” (Times of India. Our Fear of Freedom. February 13)

Thirdly, a couple of previously published authors with Penguin have threatened to withdraw their books from the publisher. If this is not strong arm tactics, what is?

So let us be careful in affixing derogatory epithets. More often than not it is the accusers that are guilty of the charge they bandy around.

Banning a book is never a palatable act in a democracy and viewed in isolation, I do have reservations on this outcome. But when I look at the wider picture, a salutary effect is evident: it sends a strong message to those individuals and media establishments that stifle free speech by the force of their eminence or weight of their position: they will not prevail. Moreover this is not a pure battle for free speech it is a parochial ideological ambush masquerading as one.

Freedom of speech must be a universal concern nurtured and practiced by all strata of society. The media has a crucial role to play by allowing space to those opinions that they may not concur with. To look upon freedom of speech as a purely government diktat is to dilute and diminish the concept of democracy. True freedom of speech should be a culture, an innate quality of a people accessible to one and all. That is what this episode emphasises.

Vivek Gumaste