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'Withdrawing Doniger's book gives her the martyr's mantle'

By Arthur J Pais
February 25, 2014 11:10 IST
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The preferred course of action to challenge Wendy Doniger's many published works and polemical Hinduphobic statements is to debate it, Aseem Shukla tells's Arthur J Pais.

He has attacked Wendy Doniger's book on his Washington Post blog -- alleging it carries false historical data and ridiculous interpretation of Hindu religion and customs -- and in addressing the Hindu American Foundation of which he is a co-founder.

But Aseem Shukla, a medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a noted urologist, does not believe in banning any book.

"Banning a book or even withdrawing it from circulation only gives a martyr's mantle to Doniger, says Dr Shukla, who was born in America and has spent years in Louisiana.

"On the other hand, the real victims are made to look like villains."

To Dr Shukla, there are too many glaring errors in the book and it is only the author's "arrogance" that would not allow her to acknowledge them. He has debated her, courtesy The Washington Post, but found her too rigid, he has said.

Personally, and as a leader of the HAF, he abhors censorship, he adds.

"HAF is against censorship or the banning of books in any country or any fora," he asserts.

"In fact, we have consistently held that Doniger's many published works and polemical Hinduphobic statements and essays are profoundly problematic, but the preferred course of action is to challenge and debate Doniger, provide rebuttals, and publish account of Hinduism and its history that provide deep insight and perspective, so obviously lacking in Doniger's work."

He points out that the book has not been banned in India.

"This particular case is the result of a private, legal, out-of-court settlement which Penguin Books, an ostensibly wealthy and powerful publishing giant, entered into willingly with a relatively unknown group out of Delhi," Dr Shukla says.

"It is unusual for a publisher to offer to pulp the unsold copies of the book too. And that means they must have had a very good reason to do so. Moreover, Penguin settled within four short years -- which is, quite frankly, a nominal period of time for a lawsuit in India."

"The questions we should be asking is why a publishing giant like Penguin would agree to such a settlement unless there were some serious questions of academic integrity or deliberate and malicious intent, which is what Section 295, the law being invoked, requires," Dr Shukla adds.

"There was no violence, no mob demonstrations, and no burning of effigies. It was recourse to the law of the land. It is too easy to throw out the strawman's argument of 'fundamentalist' and then play martyr... Doniger plays this card far too often."

Dr Shukla has been called fundamentalist, too. Three years ago, on a Washington Post-sponsored blog, he slammed New Age guru Deepak Chopra for suggesting that yoga did not have origins in Hinduism, but is an Indian spiritual tradition which predated Hinduism.

Dr Chopra accused Dr Shukla of having a 'fundamentalist agenda.' Dr Shukla said Dr Chopra was a master of 'How to deconstruct, repackage and sell Hindu philosophy without calling it Hindu!' and accused Dr Chopra of raising the 'bogey of communalism' to divert the argument.

Dr Shukla feels similar anger against Doniger, who pointed out to The Wall Street Journal, 'This was published at a time when India is undergoing a fundamentalist transformation. Ten years ago, nobody would have brought such a suit. The mood has changed.'

'Again she tries to make a connection between the out-of-court settlement with presumably the ongoing election and the rise of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party),' Dr Shukla said. 'The secular Congress party was in power when Doniger's book was published and when Penguin entered into a settlement as well as when both Satanic Verses (1988) and the True Farqan (2005) were banned.'

Dr Shukla is surprised that some religious Hindus have liked the book.

"I have said she can write and believe what she wishes," he says. "But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsibility for copious factual and interpretive errors."

The book's withdrawal has to be understood in the context of Indian law, he adds.

"Whether we like India's law, or the many hate speech laws that some critics here say limit free speech," Dr Shukla argues, "it is up to members of each country's citizenry to push for change. Act 295(a), (which deals with offences against religious sentiments) happens to have the support of members of all religions, linguistic groups, and others throughout India."

The fear of many American Hindus, Dr Shukla says, was that books like the ones produced by Doniger and her associates or students "while being offered as alternate version of Hindu history, could become the mainstream version."

Many ethnic and religious minorities in America, he says, have been "striving to take control of their own narrative as their voice grows and their children prosper. The protest against the book is a very American thing."

Image: The cover of Wendy Doniger's controversial book.

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