Is Penguin India’s decision to recall copies of “The Hindus: An Alternative History” a violation of free speech?

In a reported settlement, Penguin India agreed to recall copies of “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger. Seventy-three-year old Doniger is an American Jewish Indologist and has been a professor at the University of Chicago since 1978. In 2011, an organization called “Shiksha Bachao Andolan” filed a civil case against Penguin India relating to the book.  According to “Shiksha Bachao Andolan” the book offends Hindus by, among other things, inaccurately representing the religion and offering an overtly sexual interpretation of Hindu texts. This according to it violates a section of the Indian penal code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

The move by Penguin India had raised eyebrows among left – liberal intellectuals who have called it an act of “egregious violation of free speech”. Historian Ramachandra Guha called the decision to recall the book as “deeply disappointing” on Twitter.  The then Union Minister Jairam Ramesh called “Shiksha Bachao Andolan” some Taliban-type outfit that is “distorting and destroying our liberal traditions.” William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal, and White Mughals said “They give the general impression we are in 1936 in Germany, with freedoms being curtailed on a daily basis”. “The real villains are the laws in this country, which were old colonial laws drawn up in the 1890s, and which make insulting religion a criminal offence”.

Hindus An Alternative History Freedom of Expression and Blasphemy

The Left-liberal intellectuals get sadist pleasure in anything that disparages Hinduism or shows it holy books, practices and holy-men in poor light. Hinduism is the most tolerant religion. No one has been burnt on stakes for heresy against Hinduism. Hinduism has withstood thousands of years of attacks by invaders and yet remained un-shattered like the mighty Himalayas. Wendy Doniger is too insignificant a being to challenge the greatness of Hinduism. However the significance of the recall of book lies in the fact that it gives clarion message that there will be zero tolerance to attempts to malign Hinduism. But are Western Democracies haven of free speech as these Left-liberals want us to believe? Do these countries allow people to air opinion that hurts feelings of other people? A detailed study of laws will show that most western countries have laws that prohibit hate speech.

Volksverhetzung (German: “incitement of popular hatred”) is a concept in German criminal law that bans the incitement of hatred against a segment of the population. It is part of The German penal code Strafgesetzbuch, although freedom of speech is mentioned by Article 5 of the Grundgesetz (Germany’s constitution). In the UK, incitement to ethnic or racial hatred is a criminal offence under Sections 17–29 of the Public Order Act 1986. Ireland has similar law v.i.z. ‘Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act’. A similar law exists in Sweden as “hets mot folkgrupp” (“agitation against a people”) in Criminal law. The Finnish Criminal Law also includes a similar law, the crime being called “kiihottaminen kansanryhmää vastaan”

Hinduism Freedom of Expression and Blasphemy

Before the Second World War, Jews were the customary target of satirists of a particular type. Voltaire, popularly considered the grand defender of the freedom to satire, was an zealous anti-Semite, and a number of his satires targeted Jews and Judaism. After the Holocaust (which is one of the most condemnable event in history), Jews were brought into the Western political fold. Today the law in many European countries, including France, criminalises Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 16 countries which include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Switzerland. 

The European Union’s Framework decision on Racism and Xenophobia states that denying or grossly trivializing “crimes of genocide” should be made “punishable in all EU Member States. No doubt these laws on Holocaust denial greatly hamper the work of Historical revisionists. Historical revisionism is the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event. According to Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson “revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time”. Though religion is on wane in most western countries, in many Western countries, there are laws against blasphemy. These laws are restricted to official Christian denominations. For example, Britain has laws criminalising blasphemy, as do several other European countries. In Germany, blasphemy is covered by Article 166 of the Strafgesetzbuch, the German criminal law. In Israel, blasphemy is covered by Articles 170 and 173 of the penal code.

Freedom of Speech Freedom of Expression and Blasphemy

From the above it is clear that most western nations place legitimate checks on right to free speech, especially when it hurts others. Therefore India has a right to ban a book that hurts sentiments of Hindus and Hindu organizations have a right to move court to redress their grievances.

By Amartya Talukdar

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