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It's always a pleasure to burn: why it's easy to 'ban' books in India

books Updated: Feb 12, 2014 11:10 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
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If any more proof was needed of the nation's inexorable move towards a Right led by anti-intellectuals virulently opposed to Hinduism’s most admirable characteristic, its openness to a multiplicity of interpretations, Penguin India has supplied it by agreeing to pulp copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.

According to these severely intellectually-challenged right wingers – the intelligent ones, sadly, seem to have been shouted down by the rabid mob that yells loudest on social networking – no one should present alternative ideas of anything even remotely to do with Hinduism. So a tweet about abysmal hygiene and safety at the Kumbh Mela leads, not to a discussion on the need to improve conditions at one of the largest congregations on earth, but a barrage of semi-literate abuse. Of a piece with this, an excerpt of Doniger’s admirable later book On Hinduism in Hindustan Times has a comment thread filled with sexual comments aimed at Doniger.

Things have been moving in this direction for years. The Indian government’s craven ban of The Satanic Verses in 1988 sparked the we-are-more-offended-than-thou challenge, a sort of namaaz-versus-jagran competition. In the years since then, it has become clear that attacks on literature and culture are the best way to get noticed. Don’t like a book, burn it, the original Rushdie haters said. The Hindu anti-Intellectual Right does things slightly differently: “That’s the sort of thing the lunatic fringe that owes allegiance to Abrahamic religions indulges in. Show everyone we are different, more civilized. Work to ban the book. It offends our religion. Not sure which of its numerous strands… but who cares about particulars!”

Read: Wendy Doniger 'angry and disappointed' after Penguin takes The Hindus off shelves

The problem, increasingly, in this Republic of the Gagged, is that everything seems to offend. The functioning of the sociology department at Delhi University is frequently disrupted by right wing student factions who object to the “pseudo seculars” there. These were the same worthy folk who objected to AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas. Their sustained campaign led to the Delhi University Academic Council dropping the essay from the history syllabus.

This hyper sensitivity to the feelings of the lunatic fringe – okay, perhaps it’s no longer the fringe, perhaps everyone in this nation is now humourless and quick to take offence – has meant that the best way to become famous in the age of 24/7 TV is to shout the loudest, to behave enraged even if all you care about is your 15 minutes of fame. Unknown outfits suddenly become famous as in the case of the Hindu Janjagran Samiti that objected to the staging of a play at the recently concluded Kala Ghoda Festival, or Sri Ram Sena that attacked women at a pub in Mangalore a few years ago and was rewarded with hundreds of lurid pink panties for their pains. It enlivens the news pages and definitely excites already dangerously excitable television anchors. You can be sure, though, that it does nothing for the intellectual life of this nation.

Read: Penguin gives in, takes The Hindus off shelves

Read: Penguin can't duck this: earns online fury for scrapping 'The Hindus'

After universities and cultural festivals, it’s now the turn of venerable publishing houses to bend over backwards and stick their heads through their literary legs. According to the agreement signed February 4, 2014, that’s available online, Penguin Books India has agreed to immediately withdraw all published copies of Wendy Doniger’s book and even destroy the copies they still have. As usual, the enraged party belongs to an un-famous outfit called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan.

Publisher of Penguin India Chiki Sarkar did not respond to a text, and Hemali Sodhi, head of marketing, Penguin India, said, in an email, that the company would not be issuing any statement or comment — in itself a huge comment.

Those who dislike being dictated to by the ultra saffron thought police can, however, access links to Doniger’s book on Twitter. Of course, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan is probably plotting the downfall of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo even as you read this.