India made headlines this week, and again, for the wrong reasons. Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, a 2011 book on a different perspective on one of the oldest major religions, will be banned from the country following accusations of offensive, inaccurate and illegal representation of Hinduism. What is probably even more shocking is that Penguin, the revered behemoth in India’s flourishing publishing industry, was quick to strike a settlement deal to avoid any long drawn legal battle, promising to withdraw the book from publication, spurred by India’s archaic defamation laws, which make publishers, not just authors, subject to criminal prosecution.
Now, before we launch into a strident and jarring criticism of the event and plunge into discussions on freedom of speech, constitutional rights and right to information, let’s take a step back and look at the issue in light of history.
Has it happened before, or are we singling Doniger out? The answer is a resounding yes, and if I have learnt anything about my country in recent years, it will happen again! What started way back in 1988, when the Indian finance ministry banned Salman Rushdie's novel “The Satanic Verses” on grounds of hurting religious sentiments of Muslims, has only intensified over the years, with banning of Bangladeshi author Tasleema Nasreen’s autobiography “Dwikhandito” by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's government in West Bengal, Joseph Lelyveld's book “The Great Soul” by the Modi government on the suspicion that it implied a homosexual relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach or James Laine’s book, “Shivaji, Hindu King in Islamic India”, by the state government in Maharashtra.
There are other instances of intolerance galore: for example, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi went to court against Spanish writer Javier Moro's novel “The Red Sari”, as it was probably based on Sonia Gandhi's life, the hue and cry over the movies like Aarakshan (banned in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh) and Parzania (banned in Gujarat) or the over-reaction to M.F. Husain’s paintings of Hindu deities.
We, as a nation, are a sensitive lot, quick to get offended, but difficult to be placated, especially with pragmatic reasoning. And no, we do not forget easily, nor do we forgive graciously. Salman Rushdie will vouch for that, given that he was asked to stay out of the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, for something he wrote almost 25 years back!
So what is this that makes us so intolerant, so insecure and so vulnerable, especially when it comes to religion and culture? Paradoxically, we belong to the world’s largest democracy which is far from perfect and we exhibit tremendous patience and tolerance to bigger evils like corruption, bad governance, inflation and unemployment. But try suggesting anything which goes against the accepted norms of religious ideologies, it will unleash the hidden Khap Panchayat in even the most educated of us, even if it’s just fiction or art. Is it our politicians who encourage divisiveness by playing the religion card each time they run out of ideas? Is it our deep-rooted desire to “belong” to a particular group/clan and if anything comes even close to threatening that “bond”, we automatically resort to annihilating it? Or is it simply our apathy to anybody who looks different (remember Nido Taniam, the 18-year old student from Arunachal Pradesh who was murdered in Delhi as we speak about banning a book?) or thinks different?
Then why blame Dina Nath Batra, the activist or his conservative association, the New Delhi-based Shiksha Bachao Andolan (ahh the irony of it) Committee, which lodged the complaint against Doniger?
This is not about a single person or a single association or a single book. This is about our collective need to destroy anything which goes against our narrow social and moral compass. This is about the symbolism which is akin to the Nazi book burning back in 1933.
As Heinrich Heine, whose work was also burned on that fatal night at Bebelplatz in Berlin, wrote in his 1820-1821 play “Almansor” the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen": "Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people."
His prophecy came true a few years later; I can only shudder at the thought of what lies ahead of us…