iconimg Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, March 16, 2014
The Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS) is in the news again. Emboldened by the ease with which they got Penguin India to pulp Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, the right-wing group is targeting the same author’s On Hinduism published by Aleph. Earlier this week, media reports suggested Aleph would go the Penguin way and accept SBAS’ demands. For a while, it seemed that the right wing — with their objections to books that may not be ‘sufficiently reverential’ and ways of thinking that don’t match their own — had triumphed.

The truth, however, is that SBAS continues to live in a pre-Internet world. The age of the smartphone, Kindle and social media has ensured books cannot be put out of circulation.

India has a long tradition of banning books and a comprehensive list on the subject records forgotten titles like The Land of the Lingam by Arthur Miles (1937) alongside the well-known case of The Satanic Verses, which never fails to whip up passions before mega literary events.

Though Doniger’s books weren’t technically banned, SBAS succeeded in its goal of making books that present views on Hinduism different from its own, unavailable to readers. 

But in an era where every word sent out to cyber space is preserved for eternity, readers have to just go online to access banned volumes.

A search for ‘The Satanic Verses PDF’ throws up 1,96,000 results; type in The Hindus and 1,52,000 results appear. Even Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in India, shows 64,000 results including a Hindi translation.

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Penguin’s decision to pulp The Hindus, a number of twitter accounts and popular blogs put up links to ebook and PDF versions of the title.

The law can’t do much about this. “In a connected world where someone in the US might upload a PDF copy of a banned book or a book under threat, it would be almost impossible for the Indian law to reach them,” says Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy.

But votaries of free expression shouldn’t be complacent. “There is also an internet-censorship regime in place and it’s pretty strong,” Nundy warns, explaining that under the IT Act, Internet Service Providers (ISP) have to take down content that is ‘insulting’ or ‘blasphemous’.

“These are rules passed arbitrarily by the government, they are not even in the Act,” she says. Fortunately, she adds, the rules don’t get used much and the ISPs are ‘resisting it on principle’.

That said, the future of the Aleph-SBAS saga is still uncertain. The publishing house has said the book is being independently reviewed by four scholars and wouldn’t be reissued until the matter was acceptably resolved.

For now, Aleph seems to have taken the smart way out.

Its statement addressed to SBAS says On Hinduism had sold out completely because of “various statements made in public as well as the media coverage of your objections to the book published by Penguin.”  With this, it has kept the right wingers happy while sharing a quiet smirk with its liberal book-reading constituency and strengthening itself against any legal attack.