In a distressing pattern that has come to define the fate of publishing in India, another book whimsically determined to have transgressed cultural sensitivities, has been withdrawn from circulation. Bowing to the diktats of a Delhi-based Hindutva group, Penguin Books India has agreed, in an out-of court- settlement, to recall, pulp and destroy all copies of Indologist Wendy Doniger’s 2009 bestseller, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The trouble for Penguin Books started with a 2010 legal notice by a Hindu fundamentalist group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan, asking that the publisher and the author unconditionally apologise for the book and withdraw it. By 2013 Penguin Books was enmeshed in a legal maze, fighting a civil suit as well as two criminal complaints. Penguin Books is an international publishing giant with a record of standing its ground in the face of the worst intimidation. As Kenan Malik pointed out in an article in The Hindu, the same publisher had shown exemplary courage in the defence of The Satantic Verses, arguing that what was at stake was the future of free speech itself.
Against this sterling backdrop, and given its not inconsiderable resources, Penguin was unarguably in a position to fight a longer legal battle in defence of Wendy Doniger’s right to be read, and by implication the right of every Indian to choose what she wants to read. That the publisher allowed itself to be browbeaten into submission by a little-known outfit that saw no contradiction in its own sweeping slander of the author — among other things, the petitioner called her “sex hungry” — is a comment on the illiberalism incrementally taking India in its sweep. To an extent this was unavoidable because the churn in Indian politics was inevitably leading to a heightened awareness about community identities and group rights. However, sensibilities have become so susceptible to hurt that virtually anything written can be contested and asked to be withdrawn. The intolerance, visible especially on the social media, is towards anything seen as modern and forward-looking, with the unofficial censors assuming the right to attack and abuse at will. This twin intimidation — of censorship combined with licence — has flourished all the more in a political environment increasingly supportive of moral policing and guilty of an almost kneejerk willingness to ban books. The Maharashtra government banned Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, under pressure from vandals who attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in protest. More recently, cartoon depictions of B.R. Ambedkar had to be withdrawn from NCERT text-books. A quarter century after The Satanic Verses, the written word seems to be more and more under threat.