The question for us isn’t whether a society fractured by faith can afford literature that gives religious offence. It is whether we can afford not to have it, says the writer of Penguin’s controversial decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book.

In the summer of 1562, a typesetter named Sebastián Martínez was executed at the stake. For years, Martínez had flitted through the country, leaving behind the leaflets he had printed, bearing the message of the Protestant reformation that was transforming Europe. Imperial Spain, its temporal legitimacy founded on the authority of the Pope and the god he represented on earth, responded to this challenge with terror. From historian Clive Giriffin’s magnificent work on the heretical print-workers of Spain, we have only recently come to know the stories of those willing to die for the printed word, in a time when power would kill for it.

Penguin’s controversial decision to withdraw scholar Wendy Doniger’s masterwork, The Hindus, points us in the direction of India’s own unfolding Inquisition. This inquisition has been an inconspicuous one; quiet and mostly bloodless. It is just as fateful, though, in its consequences for our polity — and there are few heretics willing to pay the costs of defiance.

It is easy to cast Dr. Doniger case as the consequence of dark forces rising along with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. It is also wrong. This problem goes much deeper, to the heart of a society deeply anxious over questions of identity, mainly religious.

Liberals in India have long chosen to censor themselves: no book, the argument goes, is worth human lives. Little outrage was thus voiced when India’s largest festival of literature closed its doors to Salman Rushdie last year; nor is there great anger that we cannot buy The Satanic Verses, 25 years after it was banned. There is little rage, either, at the disappearance of book after book from stores: Aubrey Menen’s irreverent retelling of the Ramayana; D.N. Jha’s Holy Cow, James Laine’s history of Shivaji, or Paul Courtright’s exploration of Hindu mythology’s fraught sexuality. There is no concern that we still cannot read an uncensored text of the path-breaking Urdu collection Angaarey, proscribed by colonial authorities in 1933.

Yet, genuine pluralism has not emerged from the intellectual deference to faith and tradition. Plural societies can only be built by interrogating our most cherished beliefs, however much pain that process might cause: religions are ideas and, like all human ideas, do not have the right to be questioned. Liberal appeasement of faith-based identities — religion and caste among them — has simply perpetuated a social landscape of warring ghettos, and the tyrannies which run them. “We live in a difficult time”, the scholar John Verges wrote to the great humanist Desidarius Erasmus in the midst of the Inquisition, “it is dangerous either to speak or be silent”. In India, the costs of silence have proved too high.

Fanatics of all religions are united in resisting all state effort to regulate the practice of their faith — but welcome the use of its power in the matter of the perpetuation of their beliefs.

The stories of the victims of these expansively-worded laws would, in other circumstances, be comic. The well-known rationalist Sanal Edamaraku has been living in Helsinki, fearing imprisonment for pointing out that the tears falling from the eyes of the icon of Virgin Mary in a Mumbai church was actually seepage from a drain. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, was subjected to criminal prosecution last year because a magazine published a satirical image representing him as Vishnu, but armed with Lays chips, Pepsi, Boost and sneakers.

In Hyderabad, a designer was prosecuted for having Quranic scripture on clothing — which, if it’s blasphemous, would criminalise centuries of classical tiraz work in Persia and central Asia. In Ahmedabad, Gayatri Mantra and Navkar Mantra were targeted for putting Hindu scripture on their clothes.

Penguin should have been willing to fight the case brought by a small group of Hindutva activists against their publication of Dr. Doniger’s book. Its management likely thought the costs of protracted litigation just weren’t worth it. For that choice, Penguin must be condemned — but so must the laws that imposed this choice upon the publisher, and, more important, our silence about them.

Indians have grappled with the tensions between free speech and religious offence since at least 1924, when Arya Samaj activist Mahashe Rajpal published the pamphlet that led the state to enact several of the god laws. Rajpal’s Rangila Rasul — in Urdu, ‘the colourful prophet’ — was a frankly anti-Islam polemic. Lower courts condemned Rajpal to prison. Lahore High Court judge Dalip Singh demurred: “if the fact that Musalmans resent attacks on the Prophet was to be the measure [of legal sanction]”, he reasoned, “then an historical work in which the life of the prophet was considered and judgment passed on his character by a serious historian might [also]”.

Free India proved less reflective. In 1958, the Supreme Court heard litigation that grew out of the politician E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker’s decision to break a clay idol of Ganesha. Lower courts had held, in essence, that an idol was not a sanctified object. The Supreme Court differed, urging the lower judiciary “to pay due regard to the feelings and religious emotions of different classes of persons with different beliefs, irrespective… of whether they are rational or otherwise”. Ever since then, assorted nuts have found audience in courts. The Supreme Court, for its part, has never substantially addressed the tensions between faith and free speech.

M.F. Husain, Taslima Nasreen and Rushdie are the best-known victims of these events, but they’re not the only ones. The progressive cultural organisation Sahmat came under attack in 1993, merely for recording the existence of variant texts of the Ramayana in which Ram and Sita were siblings. India Today was proscribed by Jammu and Kashmir in 2006, for carrying a cartoon with an image of the Kaaba as one among a metaphorical pack of political cards. In Punjab, Sikh fundamentalists cases against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the syncretic Saccha Sauda sect, for his purportedly-blasphemous use of Sikh iconography. It doesn’t take a lot to see that the threat is not to printed text, but to ideas themselves.

Five centuries ago, the medieval book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini’s rediscovered a poem that would make our modern world, nestled inside a monastery: Titus Lucretius’ classical-era De Rerum Natura. The poem’s unapologetic atheism, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt has shown, terrified and angered the church. It also transformed the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers understood the universe, and the human beings contained with it. The word, as both the Spanish inquisitors and their heretic printer-adversaries knew, can transform the world.

India desperately needs just that process of transformation. The question for us isn’t whether we can afford the costs of giving religious offence: it is whether we can afford to not do so.

The republic’s god laws:

India’s Constitution obliges citizens to develop “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry”. Its laws, though, mandate that the state play inquisitor.

Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code allows prosecution of “whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class”.

Section 295A permits punishment of whoever “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 any class.

Section 153B goes further, proscribing “any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”.