Denouncing Penguin’s decision to withdraw US scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, authors and activists on Saturday said it is a campaign to drown all questioning voices and prepare the ground for a chauvinistic and communal presentation of history and culture.
In a statement on Saturday, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) said the “surrender” of the publisher in an out-of-court settlement, which involves the withdrawal of Prof. Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ and the pulping of its copies, has rightly “aroused much disquiet.”
The statement has been signed by Irfan Habib, C P Chandrasekhar, Mridula Mukherjee, M K Raina, Ram Rahman, Jayati Ghosh, Zoya Hasan among others.
“The event has, however, a still more sinister aspect. It is, clearly an early salvo in the renewed campaign to drown all questioning voices and prepare the ground for a full-fledged chauvinistic and communal presentation of our history and culture with no quarter allowed to dissenting voices,” the SAHMAT statement said.
“The next step, as some newspaper reports already suggest, is to extend the net of censorship and use government machinery, wherever available, to extend to school and college textbooks the same kind of misinformation, chauvinistic claims and denigration of other religions and cultures that we had seen during the past BJP-led regime at the centre,” it said.
“It is, therefore, necessary not only to condemn what has happened in regard to the ‘Hindus, an Alternative History’, especially the pusillanimity of the publisher, but also to redouble our vigilance in regard to what is still to come,” Sahmat said.
Meanwhile, author and journalist Siddharth Varadarajan tweeted that he along with Jyotirmaya Sharma “have asked Penguin to pulp our books and revert copyright so we can deal with any would-be bullies on our own terms.”
In his letter to Penguin, Mr. Varadarajan said he found “most unconvincing”, the statement released by the publisher that said it was taking the decision to withdraw the book as it has a moral responsibility to protect its “employees against threats and harassment“.
“As an author I no longer have the confidence that Penguin will stand by my book ‘Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy’ published by you in 2002 — in the event that some group or individual should decide to demand that it be withdrawn because they feel it violates (Section) 295,” Mr. Varadarajan said.
He asked the publisher to cancel the contract and pulp all remaining copies of his book and revert copyright for the book “so that I may freely distribute it electronically without the fear of any future arbitrary withdrawal by Penguin in the face of pressure from the sort of intellectual bullies who have managed to have their way with Prof Doniger’s book.”
Previously this week, Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy had written an open letter to Penguin asking it to explain “what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world.”
Members of the Indian chapter of PEN international, a writers group, have also released a statement.
“Choosing to settle the matter out of court, instead of challenging an adverse judgement, narrows India’s intellectual discourse and significantly undermines freedom of expression,” said members of the PEN All-India Centre in Mumbai and the PEN Delhi Centre.
“We do not know why Penguin took the decision and expect the publisher to be transparent about the circumstances in which it made the decision, which comes at a time when Indian publishers have faced waves of threats from litigants, vigilante groups, and politicians,” it said.
It pointed out that previously author Siddharth Deb’s book “The Beautiful and The Damned” was published without its first chapter because of a lawsuit and Bloomsbury India had withdrawn from circulation Jitender Bhargava’s book, “The Descent of Air India“.
“Sahara Group is suing Tamal Bandyopadhyay, author of ’Sahara: The Untold Story.’ Foreign publishers have not distributed an English translation of ‘The Red Saree,’ a book loosely based on Sonia Gandhi’s life,” the statement said.
Stressing that they are committed to free speech and expression it said, “The removal of books from our bookshops, bookshelves, and libraries, whether through state-sanctioned censorship, private vigilante action, or publisher capitulation are all egregious violations of free speech that we shall oppose in all forms at all times.”