The Doniger Affair: Freedom of Scholarly Inquiry Takes an Ominous Turn in India — Sunit Singh

February 27, 2014

Last month, the executives on the board of directors of Penguin India made the determination that it was best to settle an anti-defamation case that names the historian of religions, Wendy Doniger, as one of the defendants.

The lawsuit, filed in 2011 by a hitherto obscure conservative group, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (SBA or the Campaign to Defend Education), insisted that Penguin India withdraw and destroy all of the available copies of Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), on account of its putatively false and lurid depiction of Hinduism. Although Doniger herself reports, in a statement released online, that Penguin India was supportive behind the scenes, eventually, the board knuckled.

To say that the news of the settlement blindsided those of us who care about the study of Indian religions is to state the obvious. While serious readers will recognize that The Hindus is the kind of learned book that synthesizes a lifetime of concern with translation, comparison, and interpretation; a fundamental issue remains the applicability of colonial-era libel statutes upon which the lawsuit relies.

The news nevertheless left the Indian author, Arundhati Roy, to ask of Penguin India: “What are we to make of this?” Another commentator referred to the settlement as the “pulping of liberal India”—although one is tempted to ask, was there ever a liberal India? For liberal thought, in its classic 18th century formulation, was arguably late to arrive in India.

Part of what makes the situation so exasperating is that it is unclear whether the SBA acted alone, or whether it is a front for a national, caste-based, or local party. With national elections slated for this spring, it is difficult not to see the settlement as another omen portending the election of Narendra Modi as the candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi, the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, was indicted for his role in the appalling Hindu-Muslim violence witnessed in that state in 2002.

On Valentine’s Day (itself an object of ire for conservative Hindus), an editorial written in the Hindi edition of the newspaper with the widest circulation in India, Dainik Bhaskar, criticized the Indian intellectuals who had come out in support of Doniger. The editorial’s author, Ved Pratap Vaidik, linked Doniger to colonial-era Orientalists, who supposedly had a fascination with the antinomian aspects of the Hindu faith, at the expense of “the objective truth.”

Vaidik, parroting arguments made in fashionable academic circles, criticized the application of “western” categories of analysis and methods of inquiry to the study of India and compared Western academics who write about India to proselytizing Christian missionaries. Instead, Vaidik directs readers to the bourgeoisified or reformed Hinduism advocated by the late 19th century, neo-Hindu revivalist Dayanand Saraswati, and the nationalist-turned-cosmopolitan-spiritualist Aurobindo Ghose.

“Genuine freedom,” Vaidik suggests, requires a balanced stance that mediates the freedom of expression and the rights of those who might take offense. While stopping short of proposing that Doniger’s book be banned, Vaidik asked, “Does the right to express oneself extend to spewing opinions?”— a rhetorical flourish that, sadly, found sympathizers on Twitter.

But can there be a “balanced” stance on the issue of the right to freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry? And are scholars of religion, as Vaidik accuses, simply proffering “opinions” that can safely be ignored?

For what it is worth, the English media outlets in India are equally susceptible to equivocating about this issue of right, as is evident from their treatment of a number of similar cases going even further back than the late 1980s when a fatwa called upon Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. On the whole, by pitting sensitivity and tolerance against the right to intellectual inquiry and scholarly expression, much of the coverage on the Doniger Affair obfuscates more than it clarifies.

What is significant about this case is that the board acted peremptorily, even after Doniger judiciously edited the Indian version of The Hindus, in an effort to fend off “hurt” sentimentsOne might metaphorically refer to the creeping self-imposition of this kind of caution by the publishing industry and academics since the Rushdie Affair as “the internalization of the fatwa.”

For the right of expression that applies to Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin (the Bangladeshi novelist forced into exile by Islamist groups after publishing Lajja in 1993), and the conservative Jyllands-Posten (the Danish newspaper that ran cartoons mocking Mohammad), is surely the same one that applies to Doniger and other scholars who venture beyond what the devout might themselves think about their faith.

The erosion of this right globally signals a crisis, the effects of which are especially evident in the marked deterioration of intellectual life in India, where The Hindus will simply be another book lost to an audience that is itself getting ever smaller.

Sources and Further Reading:

Roy, Arundhati. “A Letter to Penguin India,” The Times of India, February 13, 2014. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2014-02-13/india/47304287_1_arundhati-roy-publishers-writers.

Vaidik, Ved Pratap. “Freedom to Write Doesn’t Mean This,” Dainik Bhaskar, February 14, 2012. http://www.bhaskar.com/article/ABH-ved-pratap-vaidik-column-on-the-hindus-an-alternative-history-4521489-NOR.html.

Malik, Kenan. From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, London: Atlantic Books, 2009.

Devji, Faisal. “Changing Contours of Censorship.” The Hindu, February 24, 2014.http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/changing-contours-of-censorship/article5720626.ece.

Editorial Board. “Muzzling Speech in India,” New York Times, February 20, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/21/opinion/muzzling-speech-in-india.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0.

Malik, Ashok. “Wendy Doniger Failed Most by Her Publisher,” NDTV, February 12, 2014. http://www.ndtv.com/article/opinion/op-ed-wendy-doniger-failed-most-by-her-publisher-482364.

Shainin, Johnathan. “Why Free Speech Loses in India,” The New Yorker, February 14, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/02/wendy-doniger-free-speech-india.html.

Williams, John. “Author Resigned to Ill Fate of Book in India.” New York Times, February 16, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/17/books/author-resigned-to-ill-fate-of-book.html?_r=0.

Image Credit: Lokvani.com
 
IMG_2271_Version_26f6b0042482f2826c1.jpgAuthor, Sunit Singh, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His dissertation focuses on the failed attempt to spark a socialist revolution in India in the midst of the First World War. He is a 2013-14 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
 
 
 
 

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.

 

 

Publication author: 
Sunit Singh