Banned in Bangalore

By Doniger, Wendy | International New York Times, March 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Banned in Bangalore


Doniger, Wendy, International New York Times


What the controversy around my book says about modern India.

Last month a retired Hindu schoolteacher named Dinanath Batra, who had brought a lawsuit against me and Penguin Books, India, succeeded in getting my book, "The Hindus: An Alternative History," withdrawn from publication in India. The book, the court agreed, was a violation of India's blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to offend the sensibilities of a religious person.

Within hours I was receiving hundreds of emails from colleagues, students, readers, high school friends and even complete strangers - - in the United States, India and beyond -- commiserating with me in my dark hour. But their sympathy, while appreciated, was also wasted: I was in high spirits.

I have devoted my entire academic career, going back to the 1960s, to the interpretation of Hinduism and Indian society, and I have long been inured to the vilification of my books by a narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus.

Their voices had drowned out those of the broader, more liberal parts of Indian society; it reminded me of William Butler Yeats's line: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

What is new, and heartening, this time is that the best are suddenly full of passionate intensity. The dormant liberal conscience of India was awakened by the stunning blow to freedom of speech that had been dealt by my publisher in giving in to the demands of the claimants, agreeing to take the book out of circulation and pulp all remaining copies.

I think the ugliness of the word "pulp" is what struck a nerve, conjuring up memories of "Fahrenheit 451" and Germany in the 1930s. The outrage had been pent up for many years, as other books, films, paintings and sculptures were forced out of circulation by a mounting wave of censorship.

My case was simply the last straw, in part because of its timing, just when many in India had begun to view with horror the likelihood that the elections in May will put into power Narendra Modi, a member of the ultra-right wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

If Mr. Batra's intention was to keep people from reading the book, it certainly backfired: In India, not a single copy was destroyed (the publisher had only a few copies in stock, and those in bookstores quickly sold out), and e-books circulate freely. You cannot ban a book in the age of the Internet. Its sales rank on Amazon has been in single-digit heaven. "Banned in Boston" is a selling label.

Attention has now shifted, rightly, to the broader problems posed by the Indian blasphemy law. My case has helped highlight the extent to which Hindu fundamentalists (Hindutva-vadis, those who champion "Hindutva," or "Hindu-ness") now dominate the political discourse in India.

Two objections to the book cited in the lawsuit reveal something about the Hindutva mentality. First, the suit objects "that the aforesaid book is written with Christian Missionary Zeal." This caused great hilarity among my friends and family, since I grew up in a Jewish family in Great Neck, N. …

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