Resisting the Zealots

Enthused by his recent victory in the infamous lawsuit demanding the withdrawal of academic Wendy Doniger’s history of Hinduism published by Penguin India, the indefatigable Mr. Dina Nath Batra plans to go after yet another book written by the same author. There is however abundant reason to doubt if it will be equally plain sailing for the tireless zealot in his next endeavor. The push back to the latest attack on freedom of speech and expression has been robust. L’affaire Doniger could well become the tipping point for initiating far reaching changes in the publishing industry and in Indian laws that restrict freedom of speech for the purpose of maintaining communal harmony and protecting the sensitivities of religious groups. Penguin India’s announcement of its controversial decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History has been followed by a veri table avalanche of commentary that has been highly critical of the publisher’s surrender to the forces of bigotry and intolerance. Provisions in the Indian Penal Code that result in authors and publishers becoming hostage to the illiberal agenda of easily offended individuals and groups came under the scanner after Penguin clarified its reasons for settling out of court with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the group convened by Mr. Batra. At this point the book withdrawal has been examined it seems from every possible angle in the national print and electronic media.

The suppression of Wendy Doniger’s book has had a galvanizing effect on everyone opposed to book banning and committed to freedom of expression. Possibly no other issue has aroused in recent times quite this degree of passionate involvement. In part this is because the lawsuit against “The Hindus: An Alternative History” is only the latest in a series of instances of a book or film becoming the target of self appointed spokespersons for the sensibilities of huge groups whose heterogeneity is obviously irreducible to the hurt sentiments of a handful of members. A backward glance reveals a grim landscape littered with the victims (metaphorically speaking) of triumphant intolerance–the eminent painter MF Hussain hounded out of India and forced to seek domicile in a foreign country, the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin forbidden to make West Bengal her home, books on Mahatma Gand hi or Shivaji becoming subject to limited or comprehensive bans and so on. The cumulative weight of past assaults on freedom of expression and the looming threat of more such acts on the part of the custodians of Hindu or Muslim or nationalist sentiment have turned the Doniger incident into a rallying point for the opposition to the machinations of the culture police.

Quite unwittingly Penguin India has played a pivotal role in bringing the culture wars to a head. By disclosing the reasons for making a deal with Shiksha Bachao Andolan and identifying Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code as the ultimate factor behind its decision, the publisher has in effect shown the way forward. In the wake of Penguin’s statement regarding the book recall a group of eminent historians and Indologists has called on Indian legislators and the legal profession to put through reforms in the penal code for safeguarding the output of authors and creative artists from malicious or frivolous litigation while ensuring protection against insult and injury to communities and the incitement of communal hatred. The eloquently worded petition titled Reconsider and revise Sections 153 (A) and 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code to protect freedom of expression in India! is avai lable on Change.org. The petition is said to have garnered almost 3500 signatures worldwide within a week of being circulated.

It would be worse than futile to wait with bated breath for the legal reform demanded by the petition. The old adage about the wheels of justice grinding slowly applies here. And if the record of the recently concluded parliamentary session becomes normative (“The 15th Lok Sabha goes into history as the one passing the lowest number of bills, with 68 lapsing,” Times of India, February 22, 2014), God help the hapless author who has provoked the ire of some offense mongering group and is looking to the courts for relief. There is no doubt that a crying need exists for reform in the legal provisions that restrict free speech and for consistency in the related jurisprudence. As has been brought out in the recent commentary there are sharp inconsistencies in the way in which existing laws have been interpreted. Although the higher courts particularly the Supreme Court have upheld th e right to freedom of expression, the lower courts have frequently found in favor of those entertaining purportedly hurt sentiments.

Then there is the even more thorny issue of books and artifacts which have drawn the equivalent of extra judicial punishment. Here the question raised by authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan is relevant: of what use will an amended law be when bans are informally imposed on books and films through political pressure (“Bonfire of Free Speech,” Hindustan Times, March 4, 3014). Many books are not even allowed to see the light of day. Jitendra Bhargava’s Descent of Air India was dropped by Bloomsbury India when objections were made by former aviation minister Praful Patel. Another recent instance is veteran journalist Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s book Sahara: The Untold Story. The book’s publication was suspended when the powerful Sahara group obtained a stay order from the Kolkata High Court in December 2013. The author is contesting Sahara’s lawsuit but the stay is in effect at this time (“Sahara sues journo for Rs 200 cr, gets stay on book,” Rediff.com, January 10, 2014). Coincidentally while the Doniger controversy was still raging the legal and financial troubles of the Sahara group came to a head. The first weekend of March witnessed the drama of Sahara chief Subrata Roy’s disappearance in plain sight of the police sent to apprehend him with an arrest warrant issued by the Supreme Court. Subsequent to his re-surfacing, the Sahara tycoon was placed in judicial custody under outstanding charges of money laundering by floating fictitious investors. One hopes that the fortunes of the book Sahara: the Untold Story will be revived now that the full glare of media attention has been trained on the implosion of the Sahara group.

Impassioned debate in and of itself does not change the facts on the ground. But it is a step in the right direction. It seems reasonable to expect positive results from the energy with which the intelligentsia, media analysts and ordinary citizens are waging the fight on behalf of freedom of expression. In the outcry that followed the Doniger affair, publishers have been reminded in an unmistakable way of the public interest aspect of book publishing and their responsibility for upholding freedom of expression. At the very least it seems likely that publishers will now think twice before succumbing to legal or extra legal pressure to can a book. The Doniger episode represents one storming too many of the bastions of free speech by the barbaric hordes and has brought about a coalescence of the forces of resistance. Strategies may vary but the objective remains the same namely a society where intellectual production may take place (to use the words of the Change.org petition) in a fair, respectful and democratic environment. The opposition is fighting the culture darogas (watchmen) with every available weapon including humor. A mock lawsuit against Penguin India posted on the kafila.org website for radical political analysis has rebuked the publisher for abrogating the right to free speech and solemnly admonished Penguin India to leave the messy work of pulping to juicers and blenders.

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