One of the figures that became much more visible and famous after the change of government in India is Dinanath Batra, a Hindu nationalist who does not hold any official political position and is convener of a little known organisation called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (but was a leader of a much bigger organisation just a few years ago). Now, it seems that Batra is able to exercise a considerable influence on the new rulers, at least in the field of education. The present government decided not to conduct part of the Civil Services Aptitude Test in English because of a Public Interest Litigation started by Batra (this decision was lauded by Hindu nationalists who want Hindi to be the only national language of India). In June this year, the government of the state of Gurajat – from where the present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, hails – decided to introduce a few of Batra’s radical history textbooks as part of its curriculum. Batra had also exercised his influence from outside during the previous National Democratic Alliance government (1999 to 2004). It was on his advice (and seemingly – pressure) that the government censored some of history textbooks, cleansing them of portions that did not fit the Hindu nationalist narrative of history. To learn how people like Batra can influence the public debate in India, especially when it comes to the history of India and Hinduism, let us turn to another of Batra’s recent victories – a victory even more important, since it was achieved even before the elections, that is not under the rule of Hindu nationalists.
In February this year, Penguin Books India has decided to withdraw its 2009-published book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ by Wendy Doniger. While India, compared to many developing countries, may be regarded as a country of relative media freedom and a country, where civil protests are visible, such events should be highlighted as this case is a yet another example of one of the ways in which some authors may be attacked by certain radical groups in India. Doniger, an established scholar, had been suited in 2010 by an organisation called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save the Education Movement Committee) that claimed, among others, that her book was full of sexual motives, mistakes and distortions. It was, the organisation said, ‘written with a Christian Missionary Zeal […] to denigrate Hindus’,it focused on ‘negative aspects […] in Hinduism’, it ‘hurt the religious feelings of […] Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction’ and much more. Those who defend the book point out, among others, that it shows the society in a different light than the one propagated by the Brahmin narrative and leads to learning more about the deprived groups and that sexuality, the underlining of which has reportedly hurt the sentiments of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti members, is, after all, one of the motives of Hindu mythology. Eventually Penguin Books India decided to withdraw the book in an out-of-the-court settlement. It has been also pointed out at this occasion that it is only the Indian, not the international version of the book that was withdrawn and that is still available on Kindle; it may also be added that ‘The Hindus…’ has been in circulation for nearly 5 years; all of that makes the loss smaller but the feeling of withdrawal from one’s position remains. At that point the publisher was in turn criticised by those who believed that it should not cave in.
Amidst the criticism of Penguin’s decision, there has been talk that Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti is a completely unknown outfit. While SBA may be little known, it is in fact a part of an influential network of Hindu nationalist organisations controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (The Union of National Volunteers). Dinanath Batra, the convener of SBAM, has been not long ago the president of Vidya Bharati, the educational organisation of the RSS that runs tens of thousands schools and teaching centres all over India and claims to be the country’s largest private school network. SBAM’s office is located in one of the Vidya Bharati’s school and most probably SBAM is but a part of Vidya Bharati, which, in turn, is run by the RSS men. As elections were nearing in India, there was a growing expectation – and that was eventually what happened – that the Hindu nationalists will be back in power after 10 years. These facts do not have to justify Penguin’s decision, but they put it in a broader perspective. The publisher and the author were not facing a ‘fly-by-night’ group, but the biggest Hindu nationalist network which was expected by many to emerge the biggest winner in the upcoming elections.
This controversy once again shows that Hindu nationalists – and possibly all kinds of radical national movement – are particularly focused on propagating their historical narrative. Like in the title of Doniger’s book it is the alternative history of the Hindus – alternative to the one told by them – which is anathema to them. Batra’s influence on the new government of India may be an additional proof in this point. However, as I will try to show in the remaining part of the text, the RSS is not the only organisation that has at times tried to stop certain publications from being circulated in India.
Both Penguin’s and author’s response has also been that one of their biggest obstacles in the entire case was in fact the section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. This section makes ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class’ a crime. On one hand, it seems reasonable that certain norms should not be transgressed and that not every idea and picture should be freely propagated. However, legally defining ‘religious feelings’ and the way they can be ‘outraged’ is hard enough and establishing whether such an act was ‘deliberate and malicious’ is yet another challenge. Even after all of that would be proven, a question remains whether such an act should be a criminal or rather a civil offence. While in this case the publisher did not want to go through such a process, right from the inauguration of this law in the colonial period it has been used to withdraw and ban certain publications. The section of the code may be used not only to judge words, but actions. Possibly the most bizarre case is that of the cricketer Ravi Shastri, who was suited by an outfit called Bajrang Dal for reportedly trying beef in South Africa (and Bajrang Dal is a member organisation of the same Hindu nationalist network to which Vidya Bharati and SBAM belong). However, the tendency to censure or ban certain works as being outrageous to some communities exists also as a preventive measure, without and before resorting to section 295A. Among various examples, the Da Vinci Code movie was banned in few states as offensive to Christians and the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, as being offensive to Muslims, is still banned, as well as its import into India.
As ‘sentiments’ or ‘feelings’ cannot be measured and it is very difficult to establish how many members of the community share them in a particular case, they have become a notion easily exploited politically by certain groups. These can present themselves as the defenders of these sentiments and thanks to that claim to be representatives of the entire community (and this entire mechanism obviously works not only in the case of religious communities). The same game may be played by a government who may claim that is has to defend the same feelings of its citizens. It may be reminded here, that when during the 1999-2004 the government started to cut out certain portions of the history textbooks, it did so, as the Minister of Human Resources claimed, because of numerous letters he had allegedly received from outraged members of many religious communities (he has never shown these letters to the public). On the other hand, a government may also doing because it prefers to certain publication rather than risk violence, but in many cases it may be difficult to ascertain whether the threat is real or does it serve as a justification to gain popularity among a specific community. One needs to add here that the same solution was applied by governments of various political persuasions, as is proven by the case of a communist government in West Bengal that banned Taslima Nasreen’s book Dwikhandita, reportedly out of fear of a Muslim outrage.
It should be also pointed out here that there are other ways in which a certain publication or author may be attacked (and Penguin Books India was surely aware of that). In 2003 the book Shivaji. Hindu King in Islamic India by James Lane was both published and then withdrawn by Oxford University Press due to the pressure from certain radical Maratha groups. Despite this, members of Shiv Sena have beaten up Shrikant Bahulkar (whom Lane had thanked in his book) and in 2004 members of another radical Maratha group had assaulted the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune (where Bahulkar worked) and caused serious and irreversible damages to its manuscript collection. The same SBAM and the same Dinanath Batra, as well as a student union also ran by the RSS (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) caused the withdrawal of the essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ by A.K. Ramanujan from a Delhi University history course and earlier the withdrawal of Ramanujan’s collected essays by Oxford University Press. In case of the struggle for Delhi University syllabus, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protests also turned violent. The case of Salman Rushdie’s withdrawal from a literary festival in Jaipur, upon an impossible to verify information that he may be targeted by killers send by Muslim radicals and gangsters, together with the fact that the public readings from his banned The Satanic Verses during the festival have been brought to a halt, also does not add up to the general air about writer’s freedom of expression. To sum up, violence – and forms of street protest that may lead to it – can be an effective way to enforce a withdrawal of a publication, while in some cases the sole, natural fear of such violence may also suffice.
Having said all of this, let me stress once again that India is still a country of a relative freedom of expression (as always, it depends to which other country we would compare), that it does have free media and that the banning or withdrawal of books happens only once in a while. However, the case of an attack on Wendy Doniger’s book is a symptom of a larger and dangerous tendency of some radical groups to silence the voices disliked by them.