Book banning shows rising Hindu nationalism in India's election year

The high-profile withdrawal of a book on Hinduism by a US academic has fueled concerns that Hindu extremism is starting to again move out of the margins and into the mainstream of Asia's largest democracy.

Penguin Books India agreed this week to pulp all copies of "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by Wendy Doniger following a four-year legal battle with a right-wing Hindu group that has also taken on Indian schools over sex education. In its lawsuit, the group said the book's depiction of mythological texts had "hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus."

The move comes as India prepares for general elections which the Hindu nationalist BJP party, led by Narendra Modi, is widely favored to win. It also comes on the heels of a recent ruling by India's Supreme Court that reinstated a colonial-era ban on homosexuality. The ruling was taken in response to a challenge brought by religious groups, including Muslim and Christian campaigners.

"The political climate is worsening," says newspaper columnist Samar Halarnkar. "What [decisions like this] imply is that the liberal space in Hinduism is being pruned, and what used to be the fringe is starting to become the mainstream."

In an open letter, Prof. Doniger said Penguin had been "defeated" by 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," she wrote.

Analysts say the attack on Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, speaks to the fragility of free speech in India when it comes to dissecting the tenets of the majority faith.

"Wendy Doniger can't be attacked on her scholarship, she reads in Sanskrit and has been reading the texts for decades," says Nilanjana Roy, a New Delhi-based writer and journalist, and one of the founding members of PEN Delhi, an international writers' organization.

"You can't say she doesn't know what she's talking about. The attack has been that she doesn't have the right."

Doniger isn’t the only writer to face censure for her commentary on Hinduism. Online activists, many of them anonymous, are swift to react to any perceived criticism of their interpretation of Hinduism, particularly on social media. Many journalists and writers in India have found themselves the target of vitriolic online attacks.

Purists seeking to ban books represent a small segment of the Hindu right. But they are the loudest, and despite freedom of speech and expression being enshrined in India's constitution, lethargic governance allows them to get away with disruptive behavior.

"If a group calls for a violent protest over, say, a movie or a book, police will move to ban the offending book or play rather than working to control the law and order situation. It's a shortcut to try to appease that section of the community," says Prashant Narang, a public interest lawyer working with the Centre for Civil Society, a think tank in Delhi.

As a result, some authors and scholars may be starting to self-censor, particularly when it comes to writing about Hinduism in a historical context.

Ms. Roy says scholarly research is suffering. "I know some people who've put aside their work on Ganesha, or on religious sculpture, because they don't want to face the fallout," she says.

Some right-wing commentators have also expressed concern. “Very uneasy about Penguin decision on Wendy Doniger book. Ideas and academic studies, however contentious, cannot be handled by censorship,” tweeted Swapan Dasgupta, a prominent journalist who describes himself as politically conservative.

Publishers as protectors

Penguin Books India, a subsidiary of one of the world's largest publishing houses, has come under intense criticism for abandoning the fight against the lawsuit. In her letter, Doniger praised it for publishing the book in India, knowing that it would "stir anger" from Hindu nationalists. She also noted that the book is available in digital form.

However, Indian writers complain that the book's abrupt departure indicates that publishers can no longer be counted on to protect them.

"What are we to make of this?” asked Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy in a letter to Penguin that was reproduced online. “Must we now write only pro-Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] books?"

Books have also been yanked from shelves in India to satisfy conservatives of other faiths. Salman Rushdie's 1988 book 'The Satanic Verses' was banned due to objections from Muslims. In 2012, the India-born author was forced to pull out of an Indian literary festival after Muslim leaders led protests against him.

In an interview with Time, Dinanath Batra, the head of the group that sued Penguin, said the book had hurt the sentiments of all Hindus. "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?"

Read the story in Alaska Dispatch.