ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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No Bans, No Censorship

Rather than fighting individual battles, it is time to make the law defend freedom of speech.

The decision by Penguin India to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History and pulp the remaining copies follows an out-of-court settlement of Penguin India with Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, a little known organisation led by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, well known for his role in the introduction of Hindutva distortions in school textbooks during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. What has been particularly shocking is the manner in which the publisher has conceded to these outrageous demands without even fighting them in the sessions court. As various commentators have pointed out, such surrender by a well-known and financially capable publisher has dangerous implications. It sets a (semi-legal) precedent, it emboldens the extremists and it pushes authors and other publishers towards self-censorship.

It is now, unfortunately, becoming all too common for publishers to bow to blackmail, both legal as well as extralegal, and withdraw books. Just some weeks ago, Union Minister for Heavy Industries Praful Patel forced Bloomsbury to withdraw Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India which argued that Patel was responsible for the financial and operational troubles of the national carrier. In both these instances, the formal legality of the action hid the coarse extralegal pressure which remained like the proverbial elephant in the room. In the case of Doniger’s book the unsaid was the very real possibility of violence against the publisher, bookshops, and even authors and institutions who may have collaborated with Doniger as happened in the case of James Laine, to “avenge” whose book on Shivaji the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was vandalised. In a context where Narendra Modi is apparently politically in the ascendance, it is easy to frighten publishing houses which are also big businesses. In the case of Bhargava, it seems obvious that the publishers did not want to pick a fight with a powerful union minister.

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