SPEAKING FREELY Literature clashes with the law in India
By Anindya Rai Verman
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Even authors of international repute are finding that publishers can no longer protect their right to freedom of expression in India, the world's largest democracy. The blame for this lies in the way publishers are being sandwiched between tough Indian libel laws and claims that books violate certain religious or other "rights".
When zealous interest groups or elements get involved, punitive legal provisions more often than not tilt the scales against authors. Throw in politicians of all hues ready to latch onto
"emotive" issues, and one begins to comprehend why the going is getting so tough for writers and their publishers.
This explains the now familiar tussles that have in recent years repeatedly pitted "extreme elements" against writers seeking to uphold the right to freedom of speech and expression.
The most recent outcry in Indian and foreign media was over Penguin India's decision to recall and pulp, at its own expense, copies of the Indian edition of leading American academic Wendy Doniger's 800-page book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, published in 2009.
This followed an "out-of-court settlement" between the publishers and Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, a Delhi-based Hindu outfit, who was up in arms over alleged "inaccuracies and biases".
Reactions to the scandal have been as expected. For instance, leading Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, an author in the Penguin stable, has called Penguin India's decision "deeply disappointing", adding that the publishers should have appealed in a higher court.
Booker prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy, also from the Penguin stable, has flayed Penguin's move, asking "what is it that scared you so?" and reminding Penguin of how it has "fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds" in the past.
It has been suggested that publishing houses like Penguin, with "deep pockets", ought to do a better job of protecting authors' rights.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Washington-based Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy body for the Hindu American community, criticized Doniger's book, saying it found it "atonal, inaccurate, and non-reflective of actual Hindu practice".
Penguin India has officially reacted to the speculation by blaming "intolerant and restrictive" Indian laws, a position consistent with Doniger's own.
Now that the reactions of both author and publisher are in, would suggestions that Penguin India did little to protect Doniger's rights as an author be put to rest? Doniger herself has been most "accommodative" in her response, acknowledging that Penguin India defended her book in the courts for four years, "both as a civil and as a criminal suit", but that it was "finally defeated by the true villain of this piece - the Indian law".
Penguin India, too, has cited its "obligation as any other organization to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be" and its "moral responsibility" to protect "our employees against threats and harassment", for bringing to a "close a four-year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition" of Doniger's book.
The ongoing tussle between authors, publishers and interest groups seems unlikely to end anytime soon. India which was the first to ban imports of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses for "hurting Muslim sentiments", and saw famed artist M F Husain die in exile in 2011 after facing death threats in India from far-right Hindu groups "angered by his paintings of Indian deities in the nude".
Elements that are eager to silence or censor unwanted voices are emboldened by India's tough libel laws (particularly section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, as Penguin India has cited in its response).
The Doniger issue has already assumed political hues which are particularly significant given the approaching general elections in April-May 2014. The opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is perceived as mainly "pro-Hindu" and predicted to do well.
Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh of the ruling Congress party has described Penguin India's decision as "atrocious", calling the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (The Save Education Movement) "some Taliban-type outfit" that is "distorting and destroying our [India's] liberal traditions".
In another recent book-related tussle, it was concerns over defamation and not hurting religious sentiments that saw a book pulped. London-based Bloomsbury Publishing took a "unilateral" decision in January to "withdraw from the market and destroy copies" of The Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava, published only in October last year. Praful Patel, former aviation minister and now federal minister for heavy industries and public enterprises, named in the book among others, had filed a defamation case against the author and publisher in an Indian court.
While Bloomsbury India offered an apology to Patel, Bhargava maintains he wasn't kept in the loop by Bloomsbury India about its decision. In the event, Bhargava has decided not to be "bulldozed into submission" and says he will get the book reprinted "either on my own or through a new publisher". He said he may also bring it out as an "e-book" because facts can't be "allowed to be suppressed".
In the end, it seems, even authors in the stable of international publishers have little choice where India is concerned. If an author's physical book is taken out of print, he or she will have to find a new way to keep it in circulation. As Penguin has clarified in the Doniger case, international editions of his book "remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it".
Anindya Rai Verman is a New Delhi-based journalist and writer who analyzes Asian issues and how they affect global business and politics.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.