02/14/2014 05:16 EST | Updated 04/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Penguin Books India Gave Up on Freedom of Expression

Only days ago, news leaked that Penguin Books India had quietly settled a 2011 lawsuit filed against it by a conservative Indian education reform group, which required the publisher to withdraw and destroy all available copies of the Indian edition of University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Only days ago, news leaked that Penguin Books India had quietly settled a 2011 lawsuit filed against it by a conservative Indian education reform group, which required the publisher to withdraw and destroy all available copies of the Indian edition of University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

The news drew sharp criticism from around the world, and rightly so, for Penguin has caved in to a demand for self-censorship. As one of the world's most respected publishers, Penguin's move highlights troubling norms with the law in India when it comes to publishing books about religion.

First published in 2009, Professor Doniger's book attempts to reinterpret Hinduism as an artistic and heterodox body of cultural thought, rather than as a uniform religion, by interpreting its myths as fiction, giving a fair hearing to some of its lesser-known doctrines, and emphasizing the contributions of women and members of the lower-castes to Hindu thought. Since its publication, its removal from circulation has become a hot-button issue for the Indian far-right, although it has been praised for its scholarly depth and insight by critics.

Although I haven't read the book in its entirety, the portions I have read appear to present a rich, complicated and ennobling vision of a grand intellectual tradition that is an alternative to a standard interpretation based solely on Hindu texts. While Doniger does fall into the trap of over-emphasizing sexual themes in Hinduism, oversimplifying and misinterpreting some of its teachings and entertaining speculative theories, the overall treatment is academic, if a little dense, and presents a view of Hinduism as a broad intellectual system with plenty of internal contradictions. As with any book, if it is found to be interesting, it should be read. If not, it should be put down. But never destroyed.

The lawsuit filed against Penguin by Shiksha Bachao Andolan ("Save Education Campaign"), a socially conservative Hindu activist group, claims that the book is factually inaccurate, misleading, and misrepresents the Hindu religion, thus hurting the sentiments of Hindus and violating section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Indian law can treat cases involving religious sentiment as criminal cases, with section 295A in particular imposing punishments of imprisonment and fines where "deliberate and malicious intention" is proved, effectively forcing publishers to self-censor or muzzle their authors. In other words freedom is speech is allowed, as long as it's not about religion.

Penguin didn't have to concede. It could have refused to take the book off its shelves and continued to defend it in both civil and criminal lawsuits as it has done for the past four years, making the case that the range of issues that can be construed as offensive to India's religious sentiments effectively ensures that the Indian Penal Code encroaches on freedom of expression, and is thus inherently unconstitutional. That it chose to settle instead raises eyebrows. Indeed, the company's official statement makes references to protecting its employees from "threats and harassment," which hints that there is more to this incident than meets the eye.

When reading the settlement agreement (which you can read here), note the self-flagellation that Penguin is forced to perform. Not only is it insufficient for Penguin to simply recall and destroy all copies of the Indian edition of this book at its own cost, but it is also forced to reiterate, as though translating and publishing the Gita, the Koran, the Bible, the Talmud and the Dhammapada in high quality mass-market editions was not proof enough, "that it respects all religions worldwide." Like a churlish child brought to heel it is also forced to promise that it "shall hereinafter not sell, publish or distribute 'the Book'." Clearly mere corrective action is not enough for its opponents, recantation is demanded as well.

What could possibly have scared the multinational publishing empire into falling on its knees in front of an otherwise forgettable fringe group, more than three years after this lawsuit was filed, and more than five years after the book's initial publication?

The aggrieved party, Shiksha Bachao Andolan (SBA), is headed by Dinanath Batra, an 84-year-old former teacher and school principal who styles himself as a defender of Hinduism against denigration and misrepresentation. While his cause sounds laudable, his overt links to prominent organizations on the far-right of the Indian political spectrum, as well as his track record, make his motives suspect.

A former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu right-wing's political brain trust and ideological mentor of the country's conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Batra is well-known in education circles for championing the cause of "value-based education." In the past, he has lobbied for school history textbooks to be re-written to reflect a more chauvinist Hindu worldview, agitated against the teaching of sexual education in schools, and has openly spoken of his desire to establish a pan-Indian non-governmental commission that will have the power to dictate the country's national education curriculum. Buoyed by this success, he openly admits his wish to target another one of Wendy Doniger's books on Hinduism -- On Hinduism.

Does Batra enjoy political support at the highest levels than otherwise meets the eye? Was this incident Penguin's subtle acknowledgment of, perhaps even a capitulation to, to the growing clout of a resurgent right-wing in India, revived by a favourable political climate, a weak central government, an incoherent left-wing and an impotent intelligentsia?

By conceding to the demands of what should otherwise be a minor fringe of the Indian right-wing, Penguin has opened the doors to perpetual concessions down the road and emboldened the enemies of independent thought. The social conservatives, by demonstrating their narrow-mindedness, have exposed their beliefs to even greater criticism and scrutiny, which undermines their goal of securing a monopoly on interpretations of Indian and Hindu identity. And the Indian government, the intelligentsia and the Indian Left, by systematically failing to address the challenge to freedom of expression that is presented by the Indian Penal Code -- and these groups -- have dealt a blow to the international image of their country and cheapened their oft-repeated commitment to secularism and democracy.

Unless more facts come to light, the message sent is that misguided patriotism on the part of a disciplined few and indifference to the limits imposed on constitutional freedoms from those who ought to care, are sufficient to trump a publisher's duty of serving as a conduit for independent thought.