Newspaper article International New York Times

Book Recall in India Raises Fears of a Shift to the Right

Newspaper article International New York Times

Book Recall in India Raises Fears of a Shift to the Right

Article excerpt

After Penguin Books India agreed to withdraw a book deemed offensive to Hindus, many feared that an ideological shift was on its way.

CORRECTION APPENDED

In a fight with a major company, a frail 84-year-old retired school principal would seem to be the David to India's publishing Goliath, Penguin Books.

But this past week the principal, Dinanath Batra, achieved the crowning victory of his career as a rightist campaigner, forcing Penguin to withdraw and destroy remaining copies of a scholarly work on Hinduism by an American professor that Mr. Batra has called "malicious," "dirty" and "perverse."

Mr. Batra's assiduous legal filings in defense of his religion had sometimes paid off in the past, but never like this. India's intellectuals actually stopped in their tracks, wondering what had frightened Penguin Books India into settling out of court with what one writer termed "an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit." The Times of India warned of "Taliban-like forces," and a columnist decried "the pulping of liberal India."

The announcement has rippled through a city bracing for big change. Three months remain before general elections, in which the secular Indian National Congress is expected to suffer one of its worst losses ever to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The B.J.P.'s leader, Narendra Modi, has campaigned on his economic policies, appealing to the frustrated expectations of India's new middle class. Though he has a decades-long association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu rightist organization, in the campaign he has stayed far away from divisive language on religion.

Meanwhile, the governing Congress party's record on freedom of speech is hardly stellar, as evidenced by India's sliding ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Even Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" was banned in India by a Congress government fearful of offending Muslims.

But now many scholars and intellectuals are worried that an ideological shift is on its way. Past Hindu nationalist governments have been marked by battles over religion and history. Artists tackling religious themes have been targeted by fringe groups, with an amorphous threat of violence never far.

As for Mr. Batra, he said that he had no links to the B.J.P. but that he expected efforts like his to pick up steam after the elections. "Good days are coming, boys -- I see the signs of a change in political atmosphere," he said.

On Friday, Penguin Books India offered its first explanation for its decision to withdraw the book, Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History," which was released five years ago in India and the United States. In the statement, Penguin stands by its decision to publish the book but says that Section 295a of the Indian Penal Code -- which applies to "malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings" -- makes it difficult to uphold freedom of expression "without deliberately placing itself outside the law. …

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