While the world celebrated love, Hindu fanatics used Valentine's Day to show their hatred of modernity. While a favorite target tends to be shops selling gifts, this year the focus was on a book about Hinduism.
With monotonous regularity every year Hindu fanatics attack and vandalize shops selling Valentine's Day cards and other gift items as well as restaurants and hotels that organize parties for young lovers. In most cases, the authorities simply look the other way, indirectly emboldening the vandals. In India, the world's largest democracy, freedoms of all kinds have been rolled back over the past decades. The onslaught of illiberal, backward-looking and fundamentalist forces has gained such strength that people and organizations have begun to surrender to them.
The withdrawal of American academic Wendy Doniger's eminently readable book The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin India is the latest - but sadly not the last - such case. In an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save Education Movement Association), a Hindu nationalist organization, the publisher agreed to "withdraw, recall and pulp" all copies of the book in India within a period of six months. Hindu fundamentalists claim the book "defames the Hindu religion and freedom fighters."
This decision was in stark contrast to the brave stance taken by Penguin when Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses was attacked worldwide by Muslim fanatics. At that time Penguin withdrew the book only in those countries where the government had banned it. There is no official ban in place on Doniger's book in India.
Dinanath Batra, founder of Samiti, says he also filed a complaint in 2010 because of "gross misrepresentations" contained in the book. In the civil suit, five other petitioners joined him including a former Indian Foreign Service officer O P Gupta. Batra claims that his organization has won another battle but not the war against faulty representation of Indian history.
Indian academics and writers are appalled by Penguin’s decision to cave in. Arundhati Roy, who in 1998 won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things, has written an open letter to Penguin India asking the publisher straight out: "What is it that scared you so?" She concludes her letter by writing that "what you have done affects us all." Social media in India is inundated with angry and disappointed posts critical of the publisher. The well-known historian Ramchandra Guha tweeted: "This is deeply disappointing…Penguin should have appealed to a higher court." Several leading academics including historians Partha Chatterjee, Nayanjot Lahiri and Upinder Singh (daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) have issued a joint statement criticizing Penguin’s decision.
Hindu hardliners also had misgivings. Swapan Dasgupta, an Oxford-educated Hindutva ideologue was blunt: "Ideas and academic studies, however contentious, cannot be handled by censorship." Top Hindi literary critic Namwar Singh described the affair as an "attack on writers' freedom" arguing that while Doniger’s book challenges several Hindu beliefs "the appropriate response to the written word is the written word itself, not a ban."
However, this is not the first case of its kind. The Hindu fundamentalist movement led by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of rising political star Narenda Modi, who may soon become India's Prime Minister, have always been in the forefront of efforts to shape Indian history in accordance with their ideological preferences.
Whenever the BJP has been in power, it has undertaken well-orchestrated and concerted efforts to effect changes in history text books in complete disregard of well-accepted tenets of historiography. Hindu extremists have regularly attacked and vandalized painting exhibitions on the pretext that the works of art injure their religious feelings. Indeed, M. F. Husain, India's best-known painter in modern times, was forced to leave country after being subjected to harassment by extremists. He died in self-imposed exile in London.
India's record on freedom of expression is not very reassuring. In the 2013 World Press Freedom Index published recently India has slumped nine places to position 140 out of a total of 179 countries. One of the reasons given for the downwards slide is increasing censorship. There are many examples: When historian James Laine's book on Hinduism was attacked by militant Shiv Sainiks in Maharashtra, the state government simply banned it. Right-wing Hindu groups have also forced the University of Delhi to withdraw an essay on various versions of the epic Ramayana by A K Ramanujan from its history syllabus. Neither has the judiciary covered itself in glory.
While thousands of civil cases remain unheard, the courts display remarkably alacrity in considering suits against writers, historians and artists. In the face of such harassment, distinguished artists like M F Husain or famous publishing houses like Penguin India simply end up succumbing to the pressure of Hindu fanatics. A victory of the BJP under Narenda Modi at the general election in May is likely to strengthen this trend.