On The Doniger Book Ban and Freedoms and Responsibilities in Scholarly Expression

Given the circumstances, I don’t see any wrong in the Penguin withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book on Indian religion. For one thing, Penguin were, in my view, responding legally, after fighting for four years in court. The petition that initiated the proceedings against the publisher was published on Firstpost in its original form, and points out several factual errors in the book that haven’t been contested by Doniger as not being errors of omission or commission. Scholars also have to take accountability for their mistakes, like engineers, doctors, bankers or politicians. All I see in the media and from Doniger’s interviews are some flippant humour and statements in interviews that indicate a relationship of legal victimhood with the Indian justice system (yes, as many Indians themselves doubtless claim) , rather than a defence of her historical work as would befit a scholar, that state why the petition was wrong, and why her work was okay. If a defence had been provided, and it provoked debate, Penguin and Doniger would both have redeemed immeasurable respect, at least from me.

In large part, the overreaction from India’s liberals and intellectuals is with respect to freedom of expression as a whole, and not specifically with respect to this book. Most people who criticized the ban (or those who have supported it) have probably not read the book (I haven’t read it yet, for instance), and while I agree that the principle of free expression must be upheld as far as possible, I also believe that people deserve the right to react as they please regarding the book. In short, if your book pisses enough people off, it may be worth taking a second look at. Short of writing other books to educate those who may be misled by Doniger’s works (as the petition seems to claim), seeking a withdrawal, especially when the book propagates falsehood at the cost of more authentic sources (and especially if it does so to a large audience) seems well within limits. Worse things have happened, perhaps, in the history of publishing: books rife with mistakes have been made better in future editions, surely. Books that were misunderstood were perhaps explained to potential audiences too. As I’ve said earlier, a rebuttal by Doniger herself on the points of contention, would have made things more lucid. Expecting someone else to write books to explain why Doniger’s book sucks (or why some other book rocks) is a naivete of literary excess, if not a waste of at least my time.

At risk of a false analogy (albeit merely as illustration): just as a doctor’s false diagnosis that may have claimed a life cannot be rectified by shouting from the rooftops about another doctor who carried out a correct diagnosis, writing a different book may not be our perfect recourse here. Sure, the correct diagnosis forms the pretext for future diagnoses, if society learns from this, but is that how things ought to be done? All this begs the question: how did Penguin’s editors allow the book to be published, if they believe what they claim now, that they didn’t want to offend anyone’s religious sentiments?

Freedom of expression has been stifled countless times in India under different governments, from history books to school textbooks, and archaeological findings. Even in countries that treat freedom as if it were a home-grown ingredient in their country, this is the case, as seen in countless attacks on free speech and expression in even the most developed of nations. Freedom of expression specific to religious ideas has and will always come under criticism because of the irrational nature of religious belief itself and the differing approaches to criticism of religion. This is nothing new, and in the past, there have surely been times where gagging was more prevalent. We’re not a developed enough nation to have truly enlightening and nuanced debates on a regular basis – quite to the contrary, we’re a nation of angry, embattled societies sewn together in the name of some unity in diversity, that seem to want gratification from every shred of information that makes any reference to our respective identities. In this setting, we can only get such retrograde laws. Without high quality people, there are no high quality societies and there will only be such laws that constrain someone’s freedom for the protection of another’s right. (Yes, I realize that “high quality” here is some kind of strawman, but short of that, I don’t have a concise way to put across what I mean by an enlightened, nuanced, considerate and analytical temper that is sorely missing in our increasingly angry nation.)

In an imperfect society, we will need laws. In an imperfect society, we not only have freedoms but also responsibilities.

PS: I realize I haven’t helped my own case to want to read the book. But I don’t see this as an irony, so don’t laugh yet when you read this. If anything, I’ve passed judgment without the thoroughness that comes with reading the book in this blog post, and would want to know my own reaction to the contents of the book – seeing as I seem to have a strong enough stomach to take even badly written Indian fiction – or a chapter of that much reviled James Joyce.

PS 2: In the viral world of the internet, all publicity is good publicity, so I will urge you to consider the conventional and well received books on Indian history, thought and religion before you venture into the controversial ones (provided you have access to them). If anything, this approach may give you a more nuanced, enlightened view of the subject. From writers immersed in the faiths of Hinduism such as A Govindacharya to atheists like Bijananda Kar and scholars like RK Majumdar, Romila Thapar and good old Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, there are countless sources that belie their portrayal of our religion’s esoteric, exotic and erotic content with frankness, subtlety, charm and grace. These are definitely worth a read.

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