Dismay and anger rippled through India's literary world last week when Penguin India, a major publisher, agreed to withdraw and pulp copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger's 800-page book was the subject of a lawsuit filed by a right-wing Hindu group that objected to some of her analysis, and dubbed the well-known Sanskrit scholar "a woman hungry for sex."
Doniger's book was the latest casualty in India's long-running culture wars. Ten years previously, a little-known Hindu supremacist group called the Sambhaji Sena swarmed the library of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute armed with bamboo staves and nunchuks. Their anger had been roused by a book on the life of Shivaji by professor James Laine, which had passages that some members of India’s rightwing disagreed with. The Library’s “crime” was that Laine had researched his book in its quiet halls.
The 150 or so activists arrived in six jeeps. The one, mercifully minor, casualty of the affair was the first person they encountered, Prasad Konde, a peon whose job was to tidy up papers and keep the office in order. They left the Institute some time later, with manuscripts and papers scattered across the floor.
This would become a familiar, endlessly repeated pattern over the next decade, as it had in the ten years preceding. Hindu supremacists were particularly active in their intimidation, but they had competition. Back in 2012, scholars from a wide variety of Muslim groups threatened the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2012 when four authors read from The Satanic Verses in support of Salman Rushdie. But despite the intimidation of art galleries, publishers, festivals and the occasional burning of film sets, and despite the forcing of artists like MF Husain into virtual exile from India, the culture wars have stayed a hair’s-breadth away from exploding into deadly violence.
The last riots over literature happened a quarter-century ago, in 1989, when 12 people died in Bombay after protests against The Satanic Verses turned violent.
The memory of that time, the fear of violence from any set of protestors, whether they came from the sometimes trenchant Indian Left or from more aggressive and extreme fundamentalists from a variety of Indian religions, has stained these last two decades of Indian cultural and intellectual life. Although India is a democracy with well-established freedoms, it also has an illiberal set of laws that constrict speech that might offend one religious group or another. The Indian state is understandably concerned about intercommunal violence: Mass slaughters between Hindus and Muslims accompanied the nation’s independence, and pogroms have happened episodically in the 77 years since.
All the same, the speech laws have grown dramatically more stringent in the last decades. And so have the extralegal norms that many people seem willing to accept.
Sometimes, “never again” becomes a loaded gun pointed at the heads of those in the creative life. We have now lived with the present, constant threat of violence used as a whip and a curb for more than twenty years. Thus artists, writers and historians who are seen to be provocative in any way are scolded and blamed for the threats made against them, held accountable for the sword of violence that others have placed above all of our heads. For many years, the twin mantras of the liberal classes in India, especially the creative classes, have been schizoid: a rising tide of anger at the bullying we’re subjected to, balanced by the urgent and desperate insistence that we must not do anything that might provoke a riot.
This is part of the background to the withdrawal of Doniger’s book. In this case, it took neither a government diktat nor a riot: Penguin India made an out-of-court settlement where the company agreed to pulp copies of the book. Humiliatingly, like an errant schoolchild, it announced that it “submits that it respects all religions worldwide.” Penguin’s authors, and readers, have sounded a variety of protests. "What was it that scared you so?,” Arundhati Roy wrote in an open letter to the publishers. “Must we now write only pro-Hindutva books?" The anger stems from a belief that Penguin could have fought the case through the courts, and chose not to for reasons that had at least as much to do with corporate realpolitik as fear of threats.
But it is testimony to how insane our times have become that the lawsuit, filed by members of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a revisionist group that aims to rewrite history from the Hindu supremacist standpoint, was actually praised. Why? Because the extremists used a civil action rather than the usual violent threat.
Let me underline this. Since 2003, when a gentleman at a University of London lecture expressed his dissent at Doniger by throwing an egg at the professor (it missed), the threats against her have escalated to the point where she can no longer visit India. It would not be safe for Laine to speak publicly in India either, even though it’s been four years since his publishers, Oxford University Press, angered academics here by refusing to print new copies of his book, imposing a kind of internal censorship.
In February 2013, the actor Rahul Bose and I had a bizarre session on Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children on stage at the Kolkata Literary Meet; our third panelist, Mr Rushdie, was missing, unable to attend after the West Bengal government said he would be unwelcome in the state. It was the usual reason, threats from protestors, and yet another example of how the state had failed its citizens. And it was in the same year that the actor Kamal Hassan had said he would leave India if necessary, after he’d received threats over a film he’d directed.
But in many cases—in fact, in most—authors and artists find themselves blamed for being troublemakers, provocateurs, not just by their named opponents, but by their own fellow liberals. For all of the support expressed over Doniger, the resentment at “the bullies,” the Indian liberal response has frequently been to ask why the creative class must go out looking for trouble.
The great Indian liberal hope has been that by gestures of appeasement, or by following, as Penguin did by settling out of court, the path of least resistance, they can avoid the worst, bar a little vandalizing, a little destruction, a few closed galleries, a few settled lawsuits, some censored books and films.
Last month, in a short news item, the papers reported that two men had been arrested for the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, who had been shot and killed on August 20, 2013. Dabholkar was a quiet man who believed in debate; he was a rationalist and had been active in organizations that had questioned religion by questioning superstition and tradition. He was killed because, in essence, his beliefs did what books like The Hindus do—present an alternative view of faith.
Penguin’s battle was very different from Dabholkar’s lifelong struggle; a lawsuit is neither a threat nor a mob nor a gun. But these arguments over history, literature, art and books have taken place against this background, where the fear of bloodshed and loss of life is never that distant. The creative classes in India, especially the middle-class and the elite among them, have bought a precarious immunity through gestures of appeasement. They have not bought freedom; and it remains to be seen whether that sense of safety will last.