BOOKED, BUT NOT READ - When the law is used for a private agenda

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 15.02.14

The priceless sentence — “That YOU NOTICEE has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction” — in the petition under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code gives us some idea of the educational level of critics of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Not that her supposed essay in “psychoanalytical theory” is of an especially high intellectual order. Nevertheless, the furore recalls the travails of my own book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, whose revised edition Jaswant Singh released in Calcutta last month. Although Jaswant surprised me by saying he saw no difference between Sikkim and India, he was emphatic that if I felt differently, he would support my right to say so. Thus might Voltaire have declared (actually, he didn’t!) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The courtly Jaswant also indicated that the concluding sentence in my e-mail “I will understand if you refuse” or words to that effect had clinched his acceptance of the invitation to launch the book. The Rajput in him couldn’t fail to rise to that challenge.

Truth to tell, Indians have never had much time for dissent. Everyone acquiesced in the freedom struggle, Congress domination and overpowering gurus like Mahatma Gandhi. The importance of patronage further ensured conformity and still does. The only source on Sikkim that Ramachandra Guha cites in his magisterial India after Gandhi is a propagandist book by Indira Gandhi’s hatchet man in Gangtok, a police officer suspected of RAW links. It’s only now with national prototypes splintering and greater financial independence that tolerance and liberalism are really being put to the test. And we find rising out of the ashes of the old consensus in which acquiescent chroniclers like Guha are confined the stark spectre of an authoritarian future.

Jaswant Singh is the civilized face of the Bharatiya Janata Party. That can’t be said of bigots and bullies lurking behind the anonymity of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan which filed the petition against Doniger in 2011. The sentence from their petition quoted earlier doesn’t suggest they have heard of the American Indologist and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. They are even less likely to know of a book that costs a hefty Rs 999. Few can have dipped into its 779 pages. I didn’t though the book has squatted fatly on my son’s shelves several years.

To continue the imperfect analogy, many readers assumed Smash and Grab was banned as soon as it appeared in 1984. Even NDTV’s Vikram Chandra said so when introducing me in The Big Fight. Given the title, which repeats how the 12th Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, described the Indian army’s full-scale attack on his palace, the conclusion was not unexpected. It was strengthened when Smash and Grab disappeared from view. But a ban would have been clumsy. As it happened, Gurbachan Singh, the last Indian political officer in Gangtok, filed a defamation suit against me demanding enormous damages. Normally, defamation has to be proved before courts take any action. Proving can take months, even years. In my case, the Delhi High Court issued an order at the first hearing, forbidding sale of the book until the case had been settled. A contempt charge was piled on when Gurbachan Singh produced a receipt from some small town shop that had sold a copy. The matter was resolved only when the eminent jurist, Soli Sorabjee, representing me in a generous act of friendship, persuaded Gurbachan Singh’s lawyers to accept a conditional apology without damages. The sales ban was lifted but the publisher claimed he had no copies left and wasn’t interested in reprinting.

Neat, you might say. What J.N. (Mani) Dixit, the former foreign secretary who died suddenly in 2005 soon after becoming Manmohan Singh’s national security adviser, told me much later made it seem neater still. “South Block was very worried about what you might come out with,” he said over lunch in his bungalow in Gurgaon. “The defamation suit was a godsend!” Apparently, Gurbachan Singh’s Foreign Service colleagues had played on his wounded vanity. Whether they did or not, the suit was like a ban without exposing the government to the charge of censorship. The out-of-court settlement spared South Block both an embarrassing public discussion of questionable actions and the danger of a higher court overturning a ban. Dipankar Chakrabarti, editor of a small Bengali monthly, Aneek, and his colleague, Sukanta Raha, were less lucky. Arrested under the Defence of India Rules, they were refused bail by an additional sessions judge who held that an editorial titled “India’s annexation of Sikkim” in the April-May 1975 issue of Aneek “seems to be calculated to prejudice the minds of the people against the territorial integrity of the Union of India”.

No court banned The Hindus. In fact, some accuse Penguin India of pusillanimously succumbing to pressure. I wasn’t surprised but then the ethics of publishing houses in this country is hardly worth discussing. Nor did it surprise me to learn that the first protests came from an organization called the Hindu American Foundation which is one of the well-endowed immigrant groups lobbying furiously for Narendra Modi to be given an American visa. The most stout defenders of archaic and obscurantist Indian traditions are often Indians who have fled India and find it convenient to preach orthodoxy while comfortably ensconced in unorthodoxy. Local foot soldiers of Hindutva are more than happy to have their views rammed home by foreigners with the full weight of American dollars. The Shiksha Bachao Andolan took up the cause, denouncing the book as a “shallow, distorted, non-serious presentation of Hinduism filled with heresies”.

Doniger says “the true villain of this piece” is the “law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence 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”. Neeti Nair, who teaches at the University of Virginia and is author of Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, noted last year in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, “how prescient some of the objections to this piece of legislation (Section 295A, IPC) were” when it was passed. Punjab’s “competitive communalism” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant that the activities of major religious groups increased communal tension and produced a proliferation of publications that had to be banned, being offensive to other religions. Nair examined the controversies following the publication of one such pamphlet, Rangila Rasul, which resulted in the new clause to punish those who “with deliberate and malicious intention” insulted or attempted to insult the “religious beliefs” of any Indian.

However, contemporary newspaper commentaries and legislative assembly debates show “that legislators were able to rise above the interests of their religious communities (as Hindu or Muslim publicists) to speak for a larger putative ‘Indian’ community, collective, or nation”. Far from highlighting communalism, “the debates (brought) into sharp relief an alternate moment in the making of an ‘Indian’ nation”. Nair felt they marked a stage towards the emergence of “a nationally integrated, self-sufficient, and decolonized citizenry” whose creation is the subject of her current research, titled “Secularism, Autonomy, Internationalization: The Multiple Pasts of Indian Higher Education”. Neither Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim nor The Hindus: An Alternative History questioned that concept of an inclusive Indian nation. That charge must be levelled only at those who exploit well-intentioned laws to push a private agenda. In this case, it’s the agenda of an impossibly singular state in which diversity has no place and many of whose most ardent protagonists seem to be dictating policy from beyond the Atlantic.