With Penguin’s recent decision to revoke and “pulp” all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History following protests by religious fundamentalists,  it is time we ask if we actually have freedom of speech and expression.

I wonder how many people in India have heard about the American author, Wendy Doniger before February 2014. She has spent some time in India, taught in a university for a while and then went back to write a book, The Hindus: An Alternative History in which she attempts to psychoanalyze Indian Gods and Goddesses. Well, so many Westerners write books about India often to more readership and acclaim than most Indian authors can garner. They have their own takes, contexts and subtexts about the peculiarly bewildering (to monotheists) Sanatan Dharma and the Hindu divinity. More often than not their grasp on the multi-layered, multi-faceted massive number of Gods, Goddesses, Apsaras, Asuras etc. is nebulous at best.

How It Went Down

Penguin controversy Penguin Agrees to “Pulp” a Book: End of Free Speech?

This line sounds true in the wake of Penguin books withdrawing copies of Indologist Wendy Donniger’s book, The Hindu, because it offended some people.

Wendy Doniger’s 800 page tome would probably have just been one more such attempt – but for the umbrage taken by hardcore right-wingers and Penguin’s surrender. Sarasvati Research and Education Trust created an online petition (Demand for withdrawal of a flawed book on Hindu History published by PENGUIN) addressed to Penguin Group USA against the book with 10,979 signatures. Besides this online petition, Delhi-based Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a civil lawsuit against the book and there are two other criminal cases also filed against it. In a rather sudden move, Penguin made an out of court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan and agreed to “pulp” all copies of the book.

Freedom of Speech

The intelligentsia has erupted. Every publication, columnist, writer (including Arundhiti Roy) and blogger has something to say about this. Wendy Doniger is flooded with hundreds of requests for interviews.

But the debate is not about the merits, demerits, truths, falsehoods or anything else contained in the content of the book. Every opinion shared is about free speech and the growing purview of moral policing. It truly is disturbing when one small group of people decides what the majority will think, read, celebrate (Valentine’s Day will have its own stories), wear and see. Rabid fundamentalist  rhetoric  can only drag and destroy a society – no matter which group is behind the rhetoric.

There are Limits

On the other hand, any enlightened person claiming scholarship and creating a work for public sharing (be it a movie, painting, play, book, article, music- anything at all) has a responsibility to censor themselves. Freedom means responsibility. Used in unadvised and unadvisable ways will give rise to protective fundamentalism. If enlightened anarchy is the utopian state of society, all those clamouring against rules and laws must remember that “enlightened” is an integral part of the dream. Wrong as forced conformity is, unbridled and wayward expression in public fora is equally reprehensible.

Does this argument mean that Penguin was right in their surrender? A resounding NO – because Penguin is an old and established publisher mass-producing books for many decades. They have the experience to gauge public sentiment, response and reaction. If they believed in Wendy Doniger’s work enough to publish it, it was their job to defend it. To lay down arms without ado is a very poor message being sent out to any author who does not toe the line.

Penguin’s action is a serious blow to the cause of Free Speech.

By Sujata Garimella

Also See:
Our right to freedom of speech and expression is under attack !
Freedom Of Speech

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