Wendy Doniger’s book was Penguin’s to protect but freedom of expression is ours to safeguard; our responsibility is collective and so should be our response

It’s hard to tell the truth, harder still to accept it. The truth by its very nature is neither polite nor palatable. But for a country that equates the truth with victory, we seem to be increasingly intolerant of it. A growing conservatism seems to be upon us with the intention to reduce our ability to debate, argue and differ. The recent out-of-court-settlement between Penguin India and a right wing Hindu outfit that resulted in the decision to pulp a scholarly work on Hinduism by Wendy Doniger signals the growing dominance of a conservative and intolerant section of Indian society.

This conservatism can be traced as far back as the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The ban is significant because it provided political legitimacy to intolerance and censorship. The fundamentalists were quick to realise the need to manufacture intolerance and attack our diversity and freedom of expression, their arch enemies, on the basis of religion. Not surprisingly, since then, the attacks on our cultural freedoms have only increased.

A quick skim through recent acts of cultural intimidation is revealing. Oxford University Press, a leading academic publisher, buckled rapidly under pressure and withdrew an excellent academic book on Shivaji because it hurt regional sentiments. India’s noted painter M.F. Hussain lived and died in exile, hounded by fundamentalists because of what he painted decades ago. But the most recent and shameful act was when India’s celebrated poet academic A.K. Ramanujan’s work on the Ramayana was removed from the Delhi University syllabus and later withdrawn from print by OUP.

Disallowing diversity

What do we learn from these arbitrary acts of censorship, cultural intimidation and bullying? That most institutions charged with protecting our diversity of thought and freedoms of expression are buckling under this conservatism. How can a leading publisher acquiesce so easily to bullying or the possibility of an adverse court ruling? By choosing to pulp or withdraw their books they seem to agree that an alternative narrative cannot exist. Clearly, they have abandoned their role as guardians of ideas and the written word.

Yet, is the publisher alone to blame? The courts of late seem strangely inclined towards conservatism. Politicians, across the board, lead this conservatism. They want to regulate the media, censor books and ban movies. But most disturbingly, we as a people seem least interested in the truth and comfortably numb in our pursuit of attainment and entertainment. What should we as a liberal, secular and tolerant India do?

Protest. This book was Penguin’s to protect but the freedom of expression is ours to safeguard. Our responsibility here is collective and so should be our response. Authors and writers have already urged Penguin to take this matter to a higher court. This settlement and every other act of oppression should be challenged in court and outside to assert our identity as a diverse and tolerant people who celebrate not silence but alternative histories and perspectives.

Groups like Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti must be made to realise that this form of cultural bullying or censorship is acutely un-Indian and will not be tolerated. In India, we have always had many histories. Far from being a source of conflict, these have strengthened our diversity and philosophical thinking. Where others see conflict, we have seen interdependence and tolerance — an idea deeply embedded in the Indian nation.

These groups, who also misrepresent Hinduism, must be made to realise that their action is also deeply un-Hindu. The religion has within itself sufficient conflicting history, ideology and philosophy. While there are commonalities, no single deity, book or idea defines Hinduism. Hence, there can never be one Hindu way or one Hindu history. To try and reduce the religion to a single history is to insult Hinduism itself. Every Hindu must speak up to defend the plurality and inclusiveness of this religion.

Defence against offense

Finally, to ban or withdraw any book, without sufficient discussion or dissent, is to diminish and offend the reader. Such an action seems to suggest that either the Indian reader does not have the capacity to handle diverse ideas of religious history or should not have access to diverse and alternative histories. We must protest to defend our right to read and independently judge the truth and merit of each argument because our right to ideas is the most fundamental freedom any civilised society offers.

This conservatism that arm-twisted Penguin into pulping this book must be made to realise that India’s diversity is non-negotiable. If we don’t fight this, our ability to debate and argue will slowly vanish. We will then be left with only one version of history and a broken idea of Indianness, because it’s not about Hinduism or Doniger but what we represent as a people. If we cannot exist with tolerance and diversity, what else defines being Indian?

(Chapal Mehra is an independent New Delhi-based writer.)

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