A controversial history of Hinduism is to be withdrawn from sale in India, with copies in stores yanked from shelves and destroyed, giving a Hindu activist a victory that has drawn protests from within India and outside of the country.
"The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago Divinity School professor, was a National Book Critics' Circle nonfiction award finalist in 2009, when it was published in the United States by Penguin. The Washington Post called it the "equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher," according to reviewer Michael Dirda, who also noted the author's "cheeky tone, given to jokes and wordplay" when discussing some of Hinduisms most sacred stories, such as the Mahabarata.
While such a casual treatment of faith elements might be more tolerated in the West, it appears to be anathema to some in India. Dinanath Batra, an 84-year-old retired English teacher and headmaster, brought the lawsuit that led to Penguin India's decision to "pulp" Doniger's book. India's livemint.com headlined its Batra profile with the dour words, "Here come the book police."
Though describing Batra as "affable," the profile quotes stern words from Batra's civil lawsuit against Doniger's Indian publishers: The book is "shallow, distorted ... a haphazard presentation riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies," and accused Doniger of being motivated by a "Christian missionary zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light."
In an interview with Time magazine, Batra cast his objections in a global context: "If someone makes a cartoon of the prophet Mohammad, Muslims are outraged around the world. So why should anyone write anything against Hinduism and get away with it? It matters because this book is hurting the sentiments of Hindus all over the world. I am a Hindu. When I read the book, I felt hurt. It hurt my sentiments."
British author William Dalrymple, who resides in Delhi, told The Wall Street Journal that Penguin India's action had wider implications: "Banning books and intimidating authors is to begin the process of destroying the sort of freedoms that make India such a joyful, creative and fertile place compared to any of its neighbors," he said.
And India's artistic community, including a celebrated novelist also published by Penguin India, has expressed its concern.
"What you have done affects us all," writer Arundhati Roy, author of "The God of Small Things" and winner of the Man Booker Prize, declared in an open letter to Penguin India published in the Times of India. "Now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing (this) settlement," she wrote.
Doniger issued a public statement in response to the lawsuit settlement. The professor defended Penguin India, noting, "they were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book."
Doniger added, "I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book. 'The Hindus' is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus."
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