February 16, 2014

Being brave like Penguin India

So they have won, They, the intolerants.

They have forced Penguin to not only withdraw but pulp the copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History. The book was challenged in court by a religious outfit,  Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee, for hurting Hindus’ religious feelings – slapping criminal charges on the publisher. Penguin chose to go for an out of court settlement and remove the book from Indian market.

Penguin said this while withdrawing the book published 4 years back: "…A publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be." 

What does the law often invoked in such matters, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code say?
Section 295A of IPC says: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs: Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
Arundhati Roy, the Man Booker Prize winner from India, has sent an open letter the Penguin asking it to explain to its authors why it withdrew the book. Another author, S. Varadarajan, has asked Penguin to pulp his book too. An advocate has sent a legal notice to Penguin on behalf of two readers against this action. More reactions are coming from authors, readers and intellectuals.

Well, to be fair to Penguin, you can’t expect a publishing house to rise against the public outcry and the laws of a nation, especially when the state has been very weak against forces determined to quash freedom of speech on the slightest provocation. But readers and authors had not expected Penguin to timidly succumb to such a threat.

India has a long history of the government(s) banning books, and people vandalizing art shows and tearing paintings, threatening authors and so on. A group claiming to represent India or any of its numerous regional-communal-ethnic-caste identities – anybody who has direct or indirect interest in stroking a sensitive issue - often takes an author or artist or ad agency or publishing house to court or illegally destroys their property and reputation. Companies and public figures whose reputation is seen as getting sullied by facts given in a book file a libel at the first opportunity. Some of it could be very genuine and reasonable, but a lot of it is the outcome of what we said earlier: intolerance on one hand and a weak administration and political class on the other.

Just to remind you of some major cases of public or governmental actions that went against the freedom of speech:
  • Banning of Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. [India was one of the first countries to do so.] 
  • Not allowing noted Bangladeshi author, Tasleema Nasreen, to visit West Bengal.
  • Threat to noted painter MF Hussain for painting Hindu goddesses. [He chose to leave the country.]
  • Action against many youth for criticism of politicians on the social media, and jailing of a cartoonist, in the last two years. 
  • Banning of a book on Shivaji written by James Laine.
  • Reported libel suits or threats against authors of books on Dhirubhai Ambani [the founder of the Reliance empire], Sahara [a huge corporate body with not so open dealings] and Indian Airlines [the national carrier for whose fall, a book blamed Praful Patel, the minister].
  • Recent disruptions of painting exhibitions, song recitals and other public functions in which Pakistani artists participated. 
  • Even reading from this very book The Hindus: An Alternative History by some Delhi University scholars at the Delhi Book Fair was disrupted yesterday.