Muzzling the Freedom of Speech

After a fierce row broke over an academic work last week in India, and the campaign against it intensified, conservative Hindu activists are purging bookshelves and academic institutions of books and academic works which they allege are abusive or disrespectful to Hinduism. Penguin India, the publishers of the book ‘’Hinduism: An alternate History’’, agreed to withdraw from sale and pulp all copies of this book, which is authored by US based academic Wendy Doniger. It was part of a settlement after a group of conservative Hindu activists filed a case against the publisher.

"We are going to fight each and every example of this. We will leave nothing unchallenged that is against our customs, our religion, our nation," said Prakash Sharma, spokesman for the Hindu organisation  Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) , one of the many conservative religious groups in India that have a history of aggressively campaigning  against any artists, film makers  and authors who they believe malign ,insult or misrepresent Hinduism.

The publisher’s decision to cave in to these threats and not to fight the case has worried many authors who have voiced their concern. Arundhati Roy, the Booker winning author of ‘’The God of Small Things’’ said that she was completely shocked by Penguins decision. She also said she was uncertain whether she would herself stay with the publisher. "So far I have had been more than happy to be published by Penguin. But now? What you have done affects us all," Roy wrote in a newspaper column. She also wrote: "The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning. Yes, it's looking bad, but they are not in power. Not yet. And you've already succumbed?"

India’s largest selling English daily, ‘’The Times of India’’ also commented in an editorial against what it called "the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors which displayed a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament". This is a strong indictment not only of the hardline Hindu activists but also of the publisher who went down without any fight.

"It's very intimidating to be a writer in India. There is almost no legal protection. We are left almost completely on our own. And the worst offenders are not the fringe groups but the politicians.", said Advaita Kala, a screenwriter and novelist. Not only Indian authors and commentators have made their displeasure public, but international authors have also expressed concerns against this growing trend of muzzling the freedom of expression.

In this book, which has raised this storm, the author Doniger, 73, who is a professor at the University of Chicago divinity school, emphasises the importance of women, sexuality and those at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy in Hinduism. The book has drawn mixed reactions from the time it was published in the year 2010. On the one hand, it has drawn fierce criticism from conservative Hindus, but on the other has also received many positive reviews.

Doniger has been accused of being motivated by a "Christian missionary zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus" by her fierce Hindu critics.

It is not the first time that a book or a work of art has created a storm in India and has drawn the ire of the conservative and extremist activists. In 2003, a book on the Hindu god Ganesha by one of Doniger's students was withdrawn after pressure from conservatives. In 2006, the painter MF Husain had to fled India after a painting depicting nude Hindu gods and goddesses led to a charge of "hurting the sentiments of the people". In 2010, the Mumbai University was forced to drop a work by the Indian author Rohinton Mistry. Not only is it the Hindu activists who have gone after these artist and authors, but even the ruling Congress party tried to suppress a biography of Sonia Gandhi they claimed was inaccurate.

Given that it is an election year, mainstream politicians have largely avoided commenting on this issue. In a statement, Doniger said she was "deeply troubled … for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate" but also "glad that, in the age of the internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book."

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