Policing Academic Freedom: A Book, a Controversy, and the Ominous Aftermath

In 2009, Penguin books published The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. The 800-page book includes over 50 pages of references and covers a vast history that spans 50 million years—a magnum opus from a highly acclaimed scholar of Hindu traditions.

A few months after The Hindus was published in the United States, it was favorably reviewed in the New York Times. The award-winning Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra praised the work as “staggeringly comprehensive,” and noted that

“it is impossible not to admire a book that strides so intrepidly into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-­Arab relations. The book was published the following year in India and was critically acclaimed. The year it was published Doniger received one of what would become several awards in India. The Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award was given to Doniger, “[f]or her imaginative and rigorous account of one of the world’s oldest religions.”

But the book provoked intense criticism as well. In the United States, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) wrote a letter to the National Book Critics Circle, protesting their consideration of The Hindus. In the letter, the HAF rejected Doniger’s work. The fact that her comprehensive account included discussion of the erotic dimension of the tradition made it unsuitable for general readership:

In the end, rather than offering the reader a depiction of a family of vibrant religious traditions practiced by a billion Hindus globally, Prof. Doniger offers an offensive, shocking, and gratuitous deconstruction of some of the most important epics and episodes in Hindu thought and belief.  The pornographic depictions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Prof. Doniger’s books already grace the websites of some banefully anti-Hindu hate sites with their own varied agendas.

A few months after it was released in India, the criticism gained a political edge. An 81-year old retired school teacher sued Penguin publishing house, arguing that the book violated Article 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” The school teacher was Mr. Batra, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization. As early as 2001, Mr. Batra has engaged in political and legal measures to affect educational curriculum through his organization Shiksha Bachao Aandolan Samiti (Movement to Save Education).

For Mr. Batra, Doniger’s malicious act was her portrayal of a history of Hindus replete with eroticism, women, and unorthodox viewpoints. The suit gained momentum and in February 2014, Penguin books agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all remaining copies (although, all copies were bought before any were destroyed). As Marcia Z. Nelson records, Penguin justified their withdrawal with the explanation that it was their “…responsibility to follow the law of the land and protect its employees from harassment, noting it was involved in four years of legal action to defend publication of the book.”

In a February 12, 2014 Time Magazine interview, Mr. Batra explained, “Her intention is bad, the content is anti-national and the language is abusive.” Another way of interpreting Mr. Batra’s statement is that Doniger’s narrative clashes with the RSS-prescribed narrative. And it does. Furthermore, it should not be a surprise that the RSS has problems with the book. In The Hindus, Doniger links the RSS to acts of violence and characterizes the RSS as a “militant nationalist organization,” and “chauvinist Hindu organization.”

Penguin’s decision to withdraw Doniger’s book resulted in a variety of outcries from scholars, journalists, and policy makers. Most notable were academic associations, which issued statements to denounce Penguin’s decision. The Board of Directors for the American Academy of Religion (AAR) published a statement on their website on March 7, 2014 that included:

The AAR and its almost ten thousand members are dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the study of religion. But to pursue excellence scholars must be free to ask any question, to offer any interpretation, and to raise any issue. If governments block the free exchange of ideas or restrict what can be said about religion, all of us are impoverished. It is only free inquiry that allows a robust understanding of the critical role that religions play in our common life. For these reasons the AAR Board of Directors fully supports Professor Doniger’s right to pursue her scholarship freely and without political interference.

A week before their annual national conference, the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) changed their preliminary keynote speaker to their former president, Wendy Doniger. On the day of her keynote address (March 27, 2014), the AAS Board of Directors issued a statement in support of Doniger:

The Association for Asian Studies, a scholarly non-political and non-profit organization with around 8,000 members, is dismayed by Penguin Books India’s out-of-court settlement in which it has agreed to withdraw and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. This decision undermines freedom of expression and academic freedom, both of which are the foundations of serious scholarship. That Penguin India has made this decision absent a court decision and under pressure from an advocacy group is deeply troubling. We believe that scholarly publishers in all countries should defend the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom by all legal means.

While Doniger was supported by the AAS, her body guards that escorted her around the conference reflected the continued presence of the polemic arena.

Some of the negative reactions were openly hostile, whereas others were cloaked in political and legal rhetoric that echoed Mr. Batra’s suit. Prior to the conference, letters were written to the AAS protesting the decision to let Doniger speak. On March 21, 2014, S. Kalyanaraman of the Sarasvati Research Center wrote a letter to the AAS Directors and Officers, urging them to reconsider—citing the possible repercussions to the AAS’ reputation.

It will be outstepping AAS’ role if AAS allows the selection of keynote speaker for 2014 conf. and gets critiqued for allowing the forums of the body to interfere with the laws in many Asian states and thus interfere with the friendly and constructive relations between non-Asian Asian states (sic).

In an effort to combat the support of the American Academy of Religion, the Hindu American Foundation that had protested against Doniger’s work in 2009 published a blistering critique in the Huffington Post on the AAR. In a piece entitled “Academic Integrity: It’s What’s Missing at the AAR,” HAF co-founder and co-Director Suhag A. Shukla argues that Doniger’s book is part of an Orientalist project that privileges white outsider perspectives that falsely portrays India. For evidence, she cites her own experiences:

“I remember going to my professor after reading the piece, perplexed by the interpretations completely alien to my experiences of the tradition through family and swamis, the Hindu communities I was a part of, trips to India, and my own reflective readings.”

Shukla explains that “while there always have been and now are a growing number of scholars who are committed to presenting emic understandings of Hinduism, we find each year that the ‘in crowd’ created by Doniger at the AAR has yet to shift in terms of power and influence.”

In light of this information, she reprimands the AAR for their support of the work and a failure to encourage academic integrity.

As a Religious Studies major before law school, and now an advocate engaged in promoting an accurate understanding of Hinduism and countering misrepresentations on a near daily basis, four words in the AAR statement—to offer any interpretation—leap out at me. To a lay person who deeply respects my religious tradition, it is this unconditional and self-proclaimed right ‘to offer any interpretation’ which lies at the root of what is wrong with religious studies today.

Shukla and the HAF’s stance present several disturbing elements. First is the mischaracterization of The Hindus. Doniger’s book relies heavily on Indian scholarship, which is quite evident in her references. In addition, her work is not about a contemporary India; over 600 of the 700 pages pertain to an India prior to 1900. As such, this work is not about an emic, ethnographic approach, although Doniger does make use of such data for the modern period that includes the presence of anthropology.

However, the second and more troublesome error is Shukla’s view of scholarship on religion. The interpretative dimension is not what is wrong with the study of religion—or of any discipline for that matter. Rather, interpretation is the activity that enables disciplines to develop and to grow.

It is not only academics who would have problems with Shukla’s stance on the study of religion. Hardeep Dhillon of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy points out,

[I]t is necessary to distinguish that as a scholar of religion, [Doniger] does not read religious texts or practices at face value or endow them with an inherent truth. Her interpretation relies on approaches that have been part of a longer tradition, albeit a more Western one, in the study of religion. To prevent Dr. Doniger from reading and writing from this perspective is a case against allowing religion to serve as an object of academic inquiry.

To Shukla and the HAF, Doniger’s extreme departure from their view of India’s history merits the censorship of such an interpretation. Similar to Mr. Batra, Ms. Shukla considers religious organizations the controllers and arbitrators of academic discussion. This decision to mute discussion does not only pertain to the publication of books, but also to comments on their blogs. Academics who wished to express different opinions with Shukla’s piece were promptly removed from the comment section—and as of April 3, 2014, only positive comments appear.

After winning the suit with Penguin books on The Hindus, Mr. Batra demanded that Aleph Book Company withdraw their copies of another book by Doniger, On Hinduism. Clearly the president of Shiksha Bachao Aandolan Samiti (Movement to Save Education) saw Penguin’s withdrawal as an entry point for further litigation. Aleph Book Company did not withdraw Doniger’s book. Instead, they announced they will publish two new books by Doniger.

The results of the suit and Penguin’s withdrawal of The Hindus has wider implications. At this time, Doniger and her readers have not suffered, but rather prospered amidst the controversy (see “The Book India Most Wants to Read” and “India braces for Wendy Doniger’s The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade”). However, the larger platform of academic freedom has been hurt.

The controversy over The Hindus has bolstered politically engaged religious groups in the United States and India to censor alternative voices in their attempts to monitor and control discussions on religion.