By Joey Wilson-Brooke
In February, after a long legal battle, Penguin made the controversial decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus from circulation in India. A move that caused outcry from authors and freedom of speech activists, and leading Indian PEN to state, “choosing to settle the matter out of court, instead of challenging an adverse judgment, narrows India’s intellectual discourse and significantly undermines freedom of expression.”
Penguin is a company proud of its history. And why wouldn’t you be if you were such a successful publishing house? Allen Lane’s inspiration to found Penguin was to bring a wider selection of literature to ordinary people. Its foundations are based on giving a greater choice of literature to everyone. So it appears to be a little contradictory that instead of continuing to fight against a defamation lawsuit, Penguin India negotiated out of court, agreeing to withdraw all copies of The Hindus and pulp them.
The Hindus has been received positively on an international level but has also caused offence to some people in India, provoking online petitions for its removal from circulation. The lawsuit that has resulted in Penguin’s decision was filed by Dinanath Batra, a member of the group Shiksha Bachao Andolan, on the grounds that it is “a shallow, distorted and non-serious presentation of Hinduism” with many “factual inaccuracies.” The lawsuit had been fought for over four years before Penguin threw in the towel and agreed to pulp the books. In many countries this lawsuit would have been a civil case but in India, “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” is classed as a criminal act, outlined in section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
Many writers, such as Arundhati Roy, William Dalrymple and Neil Gaiman have spoken openly about their disappointment with Penguin for backing down to the whims of “any lunatic,” but Wendy Doniger herself made a statement in which she defended her publisher, understanding that this had been a long battle for them and that she could appreciate why they reached the decision they did. She instead directed her anger and disappointment at the present condition of free speech in India, and expressed concern for what the future held given the outcome of this case.
Penguin India issued a statement on its decision to withdraw all copies of The Hindus, stating that it “has always believed, in every individual’s right to freedom of thought and expression” but that “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.” As a company, they also have a “moral responsibility to protect [their] employees against threats and harassment where [they] can.” The statement concludes with a comment on the Indian Penal Code, saying that it “and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” The metaphor “stuck between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind, and it is clear where Doniger’s empathy with Penguin comes from.
I suppose the point of this article is to make people think about what our freedom to read and write means to us. Things will shock us and irritate us in life. We won’t always agree with everything we hear, but it is our responsibility to listen to all opinions and make our own judgment. I am not saying to be agnostic though: we do not have a mind or a conscience simply to sit on the fence. I have given you the facts about the lawsuit, the public’s reaction to the settlement, the author’s own opinions and Penguin’s reasons for settling—all the information is there for you decide who is the criminal.
But imagine if a law stopped me from giving you all of the above? What if I was only allowed to tell you about the heretic she-devil author and her ambition to lie to the whole world about Hindus? What if it was that all Hindus are ignorant and bullying? And what if I was only allowed to tell you about the plight of the Publisher, who had bent over backwards for the little man only to be kicked back upright by the big boot of the Law? Every person who takes up a pen has an opinion, an angle and a point of view – I cannot claim to be any different. What I hope is apparent though is how important it is that people are able to see the whole of the subject, and to have a law that prevents this from being possible is more damaging than protective.
Joey Wilson-Brooke is a second year English Literature student at the University of York and a committed human rights activist.