The news has hit most of the major papers in India and the United States. Under threat from a small group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan, Penguin Press has withdrawn Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.
Rather than challenge sections of the Indian penal code which make it a crime to insult religion or religious beliefs, Penguin India has agreed to pulp all remaining copies of the book in India, and declare respect for all world religions.
Another way to tell the story: A major international publishing house with financial resources at its disposal has destroyed its own intellectual product in response to a Hindu group who appealed to a law that was written in the colonial era and enforced by the British.
The reaction of the public has been swift and furious. Arundhati Roy has weighed in, as has the National Book Critics Circle. Several editorials in both the United States and India, including the New York Times, The Hindu, and The Telegraph, have appeared criticizing both the press’ decision and the law that generated the complaint. A petition also has been circulating with over 3000 signatures demanding a reform of the laws that allow such threats to take place.
The present situation is disturbing enough. A historical perspective allows us to see even more troubling aspects of these events. The law under which the threat was made was Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code which states that anyone is subject to fine and imprisonment who:
(a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill- will between different religious, racials, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or
(b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility.
Relatedly, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, is designed to punish “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
The relationship between the two laws is instructive. In the 1920’s, in the midst of communal outrage in Lahore against a pamphlet satirizing the private life of the Prophet Muhammed, action was brought against its author under Section 153A, stated above. The judge overseeing the case ruled that the author was not guilty because, in his view, the satire of a deceased religious figure did not in its own promote religious enmity. Because the situation was worsening, however, the judge did recommend the addition of Section 295A, which criminalized “the deliberate act intended to outrage feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” And Section 295A was indeed subsequently enacted by the British because of the escalation of communal violence involving Muslims, Hindus, and other religious groups.
As Shoaib Daniyal writes,
Even at the time though, there was unease over the implications of the bill. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was a member of the committee that framed the act, tried to stress the fact that 295 (A) should apply only to genuine cases of deliberate and malicious intent and “the fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion shall be protected’.
There are several key points contained in this small historical vignette. The first is the fact that the original ruling by the judge stated that satire in its own right did not promote enmity between groups. In fact, satire of religious actions and beliefs right is a long tradition in India. The 11th century Kashmiri Sanskrit poet Kshemendra, in works such as Samaya Matrika, Kalavilasa, and Narmamala, satirizes brahminical and Buddhist norms with rapier wit. (Kshemendra, by the way, also wrote serious devotional and poetic works.)
My colleagues in South Asian history remind me of so many other instances: The 11th century Jaina poet Brahmshiva satirized Shaivism. The 16th century writer Birbal, who lived and worked in Akbar’s court, regularly made fun of conventional religious beliefs. Kaliprassana Sinha wrote satirical sketches of colonial Calcutta, many of which involved religion. In a more contemporary vein, the now classic novel Samskara by U.R. Anantha Murthy satirizes brahminical orthodoxy in the context of a funeral rite. None of these authors are banned in India, nor should they be.
The second point is contained in the words of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the lawyer and politician who later became the founder of Pakistan. In insisting on protection for works of history, and bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion, he stated a basic principle we should all share: works of history should not be subject to legal proceedings.
Even if one were to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the criticisms of The Hindus: An Alternative History were valid (an awfully hard thing to do in this case), none of them would prove an intent to insult that would be vulnerable to prosecution. The intent of the work is abundantly clear on all of its pages: it is an historical work of interpretation—focused on the lesser known stories that should be read alongside the dominant readings of Hinduism today. And critiques of such works of history should be, and regularly are, made in the back and forth of scholarly review and engagement, not in a court of law.
The Penguin decision only underscores the absurdity of the situation we are now in. If the law stands, then some of the greatest works of literary satire in Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, English, among many other languages, are technically equally vulnerable to censure. And even more actually vulnerable in these times are interpretations of history that veer outside a prescribed norm. These are not only subject to censure, but criminalization. The law makes it impossible for intellectuals, writers, and artists to perform their most essential function: interpretation of cultures in local, national, and international contexts.
In light of the Penguin decision, it looks like the 11th century Sanskrit poet Kshemendra and the 20th century Muslim leader Jinnah had something in common after all.