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PENGUIN'S DAY IN COURT - Pulping the Hindus

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 13.02.14

If you go to the Penguin India website and search for Wendy Doniger, you get a short but formidable resume for the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. You also find thumbnails and blurbs for her books, amongst them The Hindus: An Alternative History, published by Penguin India in 2011. Even allowing for a publisher’s partiality, the excerpted chorus of praise from this book’s reviewers, Indian and foreign, is remarkable.

What the website doesn’t tell you is that less than a week ago, Penguin’s CEO, Gaurav Shrinagesh, signed off on a legal agreement to recall and withdraw all copies of The Hindus from circulation, pledged not to sell, publish or distribute the book, undertook to pulp every unsold copy of the book at the publisher’s own expense and promised that inside six months, no copies of the book would remain in circulation in ‘the Bharat (Indian Territory)’.

The back story behind Penguin’s capitulation is depressingly familiar. Aggrieved NGOs and trolls (in this case the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee) with sectarian agendas lodge multiple lawsuits, civil and criminal, against individuals or institutions alleged to have outraged religious sensibilities. To avoid the aggravation, expense and insecurity stoked by these campaigns of legal and extra-legal intimidation, the besieged publisher, writer or artist, folds. M.F. Husain threw in the towel by fleeing the country, the Jaipur Literary Festival was forced to cancel a live video link with Salman Rushdie, while publishing houses surrendered by suppressing offending texts as OUP India did with A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas” and as Penguin has done now with Wendy Doniger’s book.

To be fair to Penguin, it isn’t easy standing up for freedom of expression in India. ‘Outraging’ religious sensibilities can invite criminal prosecution and all political parties, even the ones that style themselves ‘secular’, are happy to pander to lumpen who claim to represent useful political constituencies.

It was a provincial coalition government consisting of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress that banned James Laine’s biography of Shivaji in Maharashtra and stood by as vandals sacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a great historical archive, because it happened to be one of the sites of Laine’s research. It was on the United Progressive Alliance’s watch that Delhi University’s current vice-chancellor orchestrated the deletion of Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from an undergraduate reading list. It was the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which told Taslima Nasreen that she wasn’t welcome in Calcutta. There is, in short, no political consensus in defence of free speech that a publisher or writer or artist can rely on.

That said, it seems peculiarly abject and worrying when giant global publishers capitulate at the first sign of legal or extra-legal intimidation. When the OUP, the oldest and largest university press in the world, cravenly decided to not keep the Ramanujan book that contained “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in print, people properly asked what a great, wealthy university press was doing abetting the censorship of scholarship, instead of using its resources and authority to stand up to it.

Penguin’s response to intimidation-by-litigation is even more dismaying. First, the case against the book seems borderline farcical. Doniger’s sins of commission include allegedly erroneous dates, inaccurate maps, her use of psychoanalytic categories and offensive metaphors as well as “Christian missionary zeal”. Wendy Doniger is Jewish. If there ever was a test case that a publisher stood to win, it was this one.

Secondly, there are precedents where India’s superior courts have intervened to strike down bans and related attempts to suppress books. The Maharashtra government’s ban on James Laine’s book on Shivaji was lifted thanks to the rulings of the high court and the Supreme Court. When the apex court ruled that the charge of fomenting enmity between groups was unsustainable, the ban on the book was struck down.

This was no thanks to the book’s publisher: OUP India had already withdrawn the book. The petition against the ban was moved by the documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan, an advocate, Sanghraj Rupawate and a social activist, Kunda Pramila. If principled individuals, vulnerable to all manner of intimidation, found the resolution to stand up to violence and State-sponsored censorship and fought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, it is reasonable to ask why Penguin agreed to humiliatingly abject terms before the Saket district court ruled on the case. If Penguin settled because it felt the court would rule against it, why wasn’t it prepared to go on appeal?

Third, it’s useful to remind ourselves that Penguin Random House India (PRHI) came into being in September 2013 when two of the biggest publishing conglomerates in the world, Pearson and Bertelsmann, agreed to merge their trade publishing companies, Penguin and Random House. The parent company bought out the ABP group’s minority share holding, turning Penguin’s Indian operation into a wholly foreign-owned subsidiary of a global company that employs more than ten thousand people worldwide.

It was this behemoth that keeled over and played dead while the case was still pending in the lowest reaches of India’s judicial system. Why didn’t it use some fraction of its enormous resources to defend a book that its website characterizes as definitive and an author that it describes as “one of the foremost scholars of Hinduism in the world”?

The pulping of Doniger’s book couldn’t have been what Penguin’s CEO meant when he spoke of building on its reputation as “one of the most respected publishing houses in India”. In the agreement between Penguin Random House India and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the publisher actually “submits that it respects all religions worldwide”. Given the context this reads like an implicit acknowledgment that publishing The Hindus gave people reason to believe that it didn’t. It is the institutional equivalent of a child’s contrition: ‘I’ll be good from now on.’ What was Penguin thinking?

Perhaps it was thinking of the safety of its employees. Or perhaps Wendy Doniger was sickened by the hostility and threats directed at her and her book in India and decided to cut her losses. Both of these are good reasons and if there was a threat of imminent violence Penguin ought to tell us. Because if there wasn’t, if the reason for purging The Hindus from India was the aggravation and nuisance and expense of fighting the case through India’s courts, or the threat of criminal prosecution, then Penguin has sold itself short in a country where reading books in English used to be synonymous with rows of orange-spined paperbacks underwritten by a logo and its flightless bird.

The settlement between Penguin and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan can’t be treated like the resolution of a private legal dispute. It is a public precedent and every author and publisher in India will have to live with its consequences. The principal consequence is this: the spectacle of one of India’s largest English trade publishers caving at the first stage of the legal process will encourage cruising bigots and demoralize other publishers and writers. If a book written by a distinguished academic not living in India, published by one of the great imprints of the world, can be scrubbed so easily, what chance does an unknown Indian writer have, given that she is more vulnerable to intimidation, has less recourse to public sympathy and is likely published by a smaller firm without Penguin’s resources?

If Penguin refuses to give The Hindus its day in court and remains silent on its reasons for withdrawing and pulping the book, it should redesign its logo to reflect its new Indian avatar. That much-loved upright bird should be retired and replaced by a prone tandoori penguin: plucked, headless and quite dead.