To Ban or Not To Ban: Did Penguin do right by recalling Wendy Doniger’s book?

by Richa Singh on February 14, 2014

The Hindus Wendy Doniger

Someday we might have ‘Reading Books: An Alternate History’, writes Richa Singh, arguing against banning books.

Why Penguin withdrawing copies of Wendy Doniger’s book cannot be treated as an isolated incident is mirrored in the innumerable books banned by the Indian system. Yes, this is not the first time this has happened.

In words of Doniger, “They [Penguin India] 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.”

For those of you who are reading about this for the first time, read this news article.

What shocked the literati and readers across the globe was the incessant display of curbing of freedom of speech by a society over and over again. India is among the top few countries notorious for extensive banning of books. You want statistics? We are ranked at world 140 on World Press Freedom Index, just after Afghanistan.

Banned Books and their Enduring Popularity

Lets run a few fun facts now, shall we? The Bible has been banned in North Korea on ‘religious’ grounds. Alice in Wonderland in Hunan, China for its portrayal of animals containing same intellect as humans. Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its anti-slavery sentiment banned during the Civil War. Mein Kampf for being extremist in Russia. Lolita for themes of underage sexuality. Frankenstein in South Africa for obscene content. The Diary of Anne Frank in Lebanon for portraying Jews favourably. Brave New World for sexual explicitness in Australia. Animal Farm in UAE for being against Islamic laws.

Why don’t we see that these books which have at one time or the other faced a ban also crept into top hundred books of all times? As a bibliophile I am shocked that there is a section of readers not exposed to the content of these books. Books which have contributed extensively to my own intellectual capacity. And perhaps having banned Doniger’s book we are doing exactly that. We are one step closer to limiting the minds of our future generations.

Don’t curtail my rights, Mr.Establishment!

Why, may I ask, should art and artists apologise when libellous politicians don’t?

When we speak about freedom of speech why do we not get perturbed that along with the writer, we readers have been locked down? Why is this considered a banning of a book, why not see it as a banning of readers? My freedom to read is almost as important as Doniger’s freedom to write and Penguin’s freedom to publish.

I discovered Rushdie, when I first heard of the Satanic Verses – of course juxtaposed with its infamous ban and fatwa. What perturbed me was the reaction of the so called ‘civil society’ around me, levelling their guns against a book which many admitted they hadn’t read. As individuals are we ready to dismiss something we have not even judged ourselves?

It is this that troubles me. Not the simple idea of banning a book – that doesn’t.

I know I am no one to judge a book and its credentials but then who are the rest of the people? And why should I believe them? Perhaps tomorrow they will ban me? Then will I be forced to say, Yes, I agree with that too?

At this rate, by virtue of our laws, perhaps someday we will have “Reading Books: An Alternate History”.

 

Do some books deserve to be banned? asks Mugdha Wagle as she explores the other side of the debate

Before you jump down my throat for making such a heretical statement, consider the list of books below:

1. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: A hoax book describing the Jewish plan for world domination. Used by Adolf Hitler to incite hatred toward Jews and ultimately bring about the Holocaust.
2. Magazines showing images of child pornography, rape pornography and zoophilia.
3. Final Exit, a self-help book which gives practical advice on how to commit suicide.
4. A book, written by a person with solid academic credentials, which blames the victims for rape, and gives well-researched data that supports that claim.

How many people would be willing to shout ‘Freedom of Expression’ if these books were banned?

I am NOT in favour of Wendy Doniger’s book being banned/recalled/horror of horrors, pulped. (The very word makes me shudder, imagining a bunch of books being fed into a huge mixer-grinder-type machine sporting huge fangs and dripping blood.) But I have not read the book. I am prejudiced in her favour because she is a well-known and oft-published academician. But am I justified in signing a petition asking for Penguin’s decision to be reversed? Not unless I am willing to do the same for all the books I mentioned above. Because freedom of expression should apply to everyone, not just secular liberal intellectuals. It should apply to Nazis, eugenicists, violent paedophiles, women haters and terrorists. Right?

Or not?

Some of the reactions to the issue have struck me as – well, typical of the herd mentality that we all have. The minute we hear that a book has been banned, we are all up in arms.

Maybe we should think, before we react

Consider a few factors, such as the ones enumerated in Rajeev Srinivasan’s article, before calling any individual or organization ‘fascist’ or ‘fundamentalist’. Is it just possible, that the Shiksha Bachao Andolan had a valid point after all? Just because they come across as crude, should we dismiss their claims? Maybe their arguments are academically valid (one court has apparently considered them legally valid).  It’s possible, isn’t it?

The brouhaha right now has less to do with freedom of speech and more to do with the fear that ‘Hindu fundamentalism is on the rise’. I don’t remember so much media coverage, so much twitter outrage when a book called The Descent of Air India was withdrawn earlier this year, or when a book on Sahara India was prevented from being released last year. To say nothing of an obscure Spanish-language fictionalized version of a certain Italian-born lady politician which was not only banned but effectively buried. Why did nobody care about freedom of speech then?

What is your opinion? Let us know what YOU think about the controversy.

  • Shamik Ghosh

    I am not someone who is in favor of banning a book or any other for of expression. But I feel surprise at the hullabaloo over Doniger’s book. To be fair I think it should not be pulped. But I have been reading about the credentials of the author recently and I find that there are many esteemed Western scholars in her own field who have criticized her interpretation of Hindu scriptures and practices, citing them as incorrect or biased, and never has she provided any proper reply to justify her claims. I believe that she is an academic as am I. I am from the sciences where any theory or it’s interpretation is carefully discussed and criticized. We do believe in cross-examination of our ideas. She, being an academic, must reply to her critics. Simply branding all the critics of her work as Hindu fundamentalist is not something that is acceptable in academia. I have read some of her opinion and I believe that they need clarification.
    Another point to note is that her work is not a work of fiction. It is her opinion, as an academic on a culture and its practices. It is a matter on which other scholars have every right to question her, and she as a ‘scholar’ she claims herself to be, must reply to these fair criticisms. One cannot be half an academic!

    • richasingh

      Shamik agreed. Many have been echoing a similar thought. But then at times I do believe we can allow creativity too. Wasn’t Jodha Akbar factually incorrect on a million counts? But we all enjoyed it. We enjoyed history in the name of fiction. But due credit to Penguin who has now been stressing on the fact that the book is not ban but rather not going to be sold in India, citizens may purchase elsewhere and carry here. Unlike Satanic Verses which is considered to be a sin even for carrying it..


      Richa

      • Shamik Ghosh

        Richa, I think it is incorrect to say that one must allow the flow of creativity, as regard to this issue. This book is not a work of fiction. It is a book where a known academic of Indology is discussing the beliefs and nuances of the culture. When a book on history is found to have a factual errors people do raise objections. With Doniger also people have raised objections. So it is a challenge of her credentials as an academic and this particular scholarship. However, banning the book is not a solution. The book needs to be read and debated and she should responsibly defend her work or make the necessary corrections, if needed. And for the record Jodha-Akbar wasn’t a historical discourse written by a historian.

        • Mugdha

          What really needs to happen is, as a result of the issue, academics who have access to the book need to judge its credentials as an academic work.The book presents an ‘alternate’ history of a particular religion. Do the statements in the book have a scholarly basis? Is there enough external proof of her claims? How much of what she claims is verifiable, or justifiable?

          Banning/Recalling/Pulping and other knee-jerk reactions are just plain immature – and serve no purpose. But I think we need to consider how to judge an academic work – they key word here is academic – which presents ideas that may not always have solid research behind it, and pander to a romantic rather than historic version of the truth.

          • Shamik Ghosh

            Absolutely. Banning is not the solution. However, one must remember that this is not a ‘freedom of expression’ debate. The issue is the quality of Wendy Doniger’s academic work.

          • Mugdha

            Exactly, Shamik. But will that quality be judged? Right now, the picture being painted by media, intellectuals etc. is that of a academic whose freedoms are being curtailed by a Big Brother Govt. I think the issue of, whether that person’s work was really sound, will be lost in the hoopla. By many people, it will be considered valid simply by virtue of its being controversial.

          • Shamik Ghosh

            That is exactly what I fear Mugdha. In this rant about ‘war on the freedom of expression’ the actual question of the quality of Doniger’s scholarship has got lost somewhere. My problem is with people ready to jump on the ‘liberalism’ bandwagon but are disinterested in examining the facts of the book.

  • Lakshmikanth Koundinya

    In an ideal world, no book deserves to be banned, so all the four books listed above should not be banned. In such world, freedom of expression applies to everyone, even violent pedophiles, misogynists, anyone. If at all a book deserves to be banned, then the crucial question would be “Who would decide whether it should be banned?” And when this question comes, the next question that pops up is “Why should I or someone believe that this decider’s decision is right?” The subjectivity of truth would always cause imperfection in any “Banning” scenario. This is one part of the reason.

    Second part is the difference between action and expression. An action might force a person against his will. A book or expression (in this context) never forces a person. A person can refuse to read it at anytime he wants or reject the thought. You cannot ban a book because you think or fear that someone else might do something bad(again subjectivity) by reading it. If you differ with this, then would you ban Superman comics because there is a risk of kids trying to jump from skyscrapers attempting to fly and instead die? An educated world wouldn’t allow this. Only because our world lacks in education, there is all this banning. If kids are educated about fiction and reality, they can very well read Superman comics and still be safe.

    I couldn’t support Taslima Nasreen when the same happend to her in the past. That time I was a foolish kid and I did not care and I am ashamed of it. Same with all the bans that happened. And now if there is a ban and there are a lot of arms up like a herd, then that it is a GOOD HERD. We should encourage such herds and if possible be a part of that herd and be happy that more number of people are educated in this world than before.

    • richasingh

      Lakshmikanth, let me first congratulate you for drawing a great line between the two points. Yes this is my prime point. Why ban? Why announce it to be a forced decision. There can be an amount of free will attached by cautioning people. Telling them it is not okay. And then let it be, why make it a big deal and more often than never resort to violence? What good might come off it? But having said all of that we also react selectively. Like Taslima Nasreen has been left to fend for herself. Also MF Hussain. Why may I ask? Why don’t we all unite for the same?


      Richa

      • Lakshmikanth Koundinya

        We should unite for all bans. That’s there. But this line of questioning is kind of flawed in my opinion. Popularity, for whatever reason it might come, can have nothing to add or subtract to the core of any crime. It’s like asking, There were many cruel rapes before Nirbhaya’s rape, why only that rape recieved so much attention? Does rape in Delhi mean more severity than rape in some village? There are so many being murdered; why only Nido Tania’s case got so much attention? If some other murder-vitctim’s mother from a village asks you this question what would you say to her? ‘Herd Mentality’? Do you think people protested for Nido because of herd mentality? Or if someone says, “You don’t know what Nido spoke to those people, what his ideas were, he might have said something very bad, or he might be a very bad person who deserves to die. So think before you protest!” Then what would you say to him/her?
        People are slowly waking up. Don’t slap them by asking “You slept through so many attrocities and now you wake up for this?”. At least they woke up and are no more sleeping!

        • Mugdha

          I think this is a good point, but isn’t the analogy a bit flawed? There are no protestors (i.e. there are no people coming out into the open) proclaiming that what happened to Nido was right. The law is clearly against Nido’s killers. This is a law and order issue, a racism issue. Recalling Doniger’s book is an issue of freedom of speech versus safety/hurt sentiments of a section of people. I think there is a lot more grey area here, than in the issue of a hate crime.

  • shukkydomes

    Hell yeah I am reading the book! ban me if you can…

    • richasingh

      Since I am for the motion I am going to join you in saying Hell Yeah!!


      Richa

  • BlogwatiG

    *Hurriedly scans the net to pick her copy* Richa, no one could have put this better. Yes, what I read, do, like, dress, eat, drink……..it is my choice! Sue me. And I agree that under the garb of being an upscale nation, we have miles to go before we sleep…..or in this case….AWAKE!

    Very well written girl, proud of you.

    • richasingh

      Thanks a lot Vinita :-) You are being too kind to me and I agree this whole banning has added more popularity to the book and author as well :D


      Richa

  • Aritra Majumdar

    Though I haven’t read the book and am not even familiar with the debate beyond what’s been going on on Facebook, I must say the article is perhaps the most balanced of posts I’ve read so far. I’d like to add one small point though – bans can have a proliferating effect. Just as the death penalty is being gradually restricted to rarer and rarer cases, so should bans, because they (and the more physical act of pulping) represent attempts to do deal death penalties to books and ideas. Now my knowledge of the overall scenario of book censorship and banning is very poor, so I cannot really comment on whether we’re becoming more or less liberal (and then we’d have to define liberal) but the idea of increasing use of what may indeed be a justifiable weapon is somewhat disquieting.

    • richasingh

      Yes slowly but surely Aritra we are having a raging debate on all enforced decisions. There is a large chunk of the people who feel perhaps extreme steps may not be answer to anything.


      Richa

  • Hrishikesh Bawa

    If someone has an issue with the content of a book, they are welcome to not read it, or reject the contents after they read it.

    • richasingh

      Yes Hrishikesh that is how democracy should work.


      Richa

      • Mugdha

        But are you saying NOTHING should be restricted in a democracy?

        In that case, eating dogs and hunting endangered animals should be allowed. Driving drunk should be allowed. Eve-teasing should be allowed. Selling and buying drugs should be allowed.

        The reason they are NOT allowed, is because our law-makers have come to the conclusion that they harm society – THIS particular society, maybe not society in every country. These activities lead to a condition which is not safe, or comfortable, for a majority of people. They cause obvious or not-so-obvious harm. So, one assumes, is the case with certain books.

        As book lovers, we naturally assume that all books are good. Should be we SO sure of that?

        • Lakshmikanth Koundinya

          Firstly, not only people eat dogs in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, they are also considered as delicacies. Why did ‘eating dogs’ come up in this list? Secondly, actions ought to be treated differently from expressions. Eve-teasing should be banned but a book on it need not be. Lastly, I think that especially book lovers don’t assume that all books are good. People who don’t know much about books are those who assume that all books are good.

          • Mugdha

            You are very correct; some societies in India – Mizo, Naga – as well as some in other countries – consider dogs a delicacy. Other societies do not.

            Laws are made on the basis of what the majority of people in a particular society, consider acceptable. Dog lovers in many places are horrified that dogs are eaten. Who is right in this case? The answer is relative. Hence, the definition of democracy as something that works for the benefit of the MAJORITY.

            The book has not been banned in, say, the US, because the majority of people there will not be offended by the sort of statements made in the book. But just because certain societies do not consider it worthwhile to protest against it, should no one raise their voice against something that they believe presents a distorted picture of something they consider extremely personal?

            I myself have been asked, by a number of non-Indians, “Is it true that you guys worship a penis?” Personally, I do not feel offended by the question, and I try to explain what exactly is implied by the Shivaling, though my own knowledge is inadequate. But their question shows that the outre, the titillatory aspects of unfamiliar topics are what catch hold of people’s imagination immediately. Many non-Indians still harbour misconceptions about India. And we are told that, we must showcase our ‘tolerance’ in the face of their ignorance/negativity, by not protesting or making our views known.

            Why shouldn’t someone display pride in their religion, if that is what they want to do? When someone has taken a perfectly legal way of protest, why have they been branded fundamentalists?

        • Hrishikesh Bawa

          Drunk driving and eve teasing are different from the contents of a book.

          You are right as to things that cause harm should be restricted/banned. However I would like to know what harm was this book causing, for it to be brought off the shelves?

  • Priya

    Pri

  • Priya

    The book might have offended some religious fanatics but the extent to which the book deserved
    to be subjected to censorship and banning is debatable. Having said that i still feel The controversy has done the book more good than harm coz curious souls like you and me who might not have read the book otherwise will definitely download the ebook now to quench their curiosities.In spite of all the controversy, the Ayatollah Khomeini fatwa did make Satanic verses a best seller.Similarly A certain Shikhsha Bachao Andolan leader will bring out the same results for The Hindus

  • susandeborah

    Democracy is a farce in India. We are an autocratic nation who love to imagine ourselves democratic. When expressions of art are banned, destroyed or attacked, then woe to that country.

    And Richa, you have done a perfect balancing of views in this post. Quite a researched and well thought of post. Kudos!

    • Hrishikesh Bawa

      But such is democracy no..It is for the majority..

  • Rainbow Hues

    Its a very debatable issue. I don’t know what to say. If I like stuff I would read it, if not then I would not! what’s the big deal? Right?!! But on the contrary, if we have stuff which attacks the sentiments of someone then people will go brash all over with hate notes. Consider khap panchayat coming up with something to justify their operations, would I not stand against it?

    Even though I don’t have anything to say against this particular issue because I don’t even know what the book is about. All I am saying is, who decides where to draw the line?

    • Mugdha

      In this case, the line was drawn based on the current laws of India. Where there are laws, they always draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not, and that line is very black-and-white – no wriggle room, no doubts.

      The interesting thing is, the publishers (and their lawyers) themselves decided NOT to continue the fight. They have issued a statement blaming the laws, but if someone (esp. someone powerful, wealthy and with as many resources as Penguin has) feels so strongly about the validity of their standpoints, they should go the whole hog – High Court, Supreme Court etc. Why didn’t they? Is it possible that they agreed with some of the arguments of the other side? THAT, to my mind, is the real question – one to which we may never know the answer.

  • Suzy

    I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on whether this one should be banned or not. But I do feel that if something attacks the sentiments of many then there is justification for banning. Yes I agree we do have freedom to write, think, act but with freedom comes responsibility and where decisions affect many in detrimental ways or hurt someone (whether it be through a book or an act) then that in my view is irresponsible.

    • Mugdha

      My sentiments too, Suzy. In this case, I think a point has been made – that a country in which a large number of people practice the Hindu religion, considers this book of questionable merit. Those who are truly open-minded should take this into consideration, right? Instead of blindly assuming that anyone who opposes the book is a fundamentalist.

      • Suzy

        Agree. But that is the typical knee jerk reactions of many. I’ve read all the reviews and the general view is that the book seems to be Wendy’s view and interpretation of Hinduism that is based on no factual evidence and has been viewed by many as derogatory on many fronts. Creating controversy is the very nature of authors – it’s a great selling strategy, but controversy should be based on fact and deep understanding and presented in a non derogatory way. I’ve read a few snippets from many sources and if they are quoting directly from the book then I can certainly see how it could shake the core of Indian society (in an unwanted way) at a time when a radical reform of respect and morality is required there. My view only.

  • ektakhetan

    I am a Hindu and not a Hindu Fanatic..those who are one, no matter what religion they are. My deepest sympathies with them as I do not wish to offer them anything except- Get well soon.

    Having said that, when our piece of work hurts some people’s sentiments like child pornography [ I am sure majority will wish to read that], religion etc, it is better to not scandalize them to just sell more copies and earning publicity showing someone’s idol- naked. Now certain people said that what about temples that have naked statutes..

    Nevertheless, I agree a lot with Mugdha here. I still remembered what happened when a certain cartoonist drew a caricature of someone’s God. Places were “burnt”, people were killed, which was actually more unfair. Thankfully in this case, few non living copies were pulped by a simple petition.

    I have not read this book but no thanks to such a publicity around it being “pulped” I came to know about this book [Which I believed I would not have otherwise, nor do I bothered two hoots about it unless I read and tell what do I think on validity of statements there- I have read quite mythology of Hindus though] So in a way the book got its publicity and I am sure we will find a lot of unauthorized copies of it around [the book will get more publicity now; may be less revenue] and more people debating on “for cause” [some for no depth of morality but mere to sound pro-gressive]. As a free society, we appreciate all views, as long as they are not personal.

    Religion is indeed very sensitive topic and my experience says, it should be handled with care. Authors are welcome to write on issues that can have positive impact on society like ending Devdasi pratha, widow remarriage, prevent child abuse, avoid child labor.

    • Mugdha

      I liked your phrase ‘merely to sound progressive’… it is so true that many people like to think of themselves as open-minded, particularly about the issues they themselves are not truly passionate about! Good one, Ekta.

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