Religion, politics and law collide in “The Hindus” lawsuit

by Rosalie Murphy

Last week, publisher Penguin India signed an out-of-court settlement and agreed to stop circulating The Hindus: An Alternative History, a scholarly study of ancient India by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger. In six months, Penguin will remove and destroy any remaining copies of the book from store shelves

A copy of the settlement agreement leaked this week named the offended party as the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee, a right-wing group committed to defending the Hindu faith. It also revealed the law Doniger broke: Section 295A in the Indian Penal Code, written in 1860, which forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

The Times of India – the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world, printed daily in India – published seven stories about this in the first 48 hours of the news’ breaking on Feb. 12. The Times described in detail the plaintiff’s ties to the Hindu Nationalist movement Hindutva and to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which stands to gain many parliamentary seats and possibly the Prime Minister’s seat in March’s national elections – all essential to understanding the story. By Feb. 16, the Times ran a story discussing the free speech issues this case raises. The Hindustan Times and The Hindu also published bold opinion pieces decrying the book’s destruction.

But outside India, media clearly prioritize what the Times’ interview with the plaintiff did: “Penguin Books India has agreed to recall and pulp all copies in India of The Hindus: An Alternative History by U.S. scholar Wendy Doniger, raising concerns over freedom of expression in the world’s largest democracy” [italics mine]. The Guardian, the BBC and the Chicago Tribune address similar questions. Yet these foreign papers largely ignore the political situation framing this case. Perhaps international readers aren’t interested in Indian politics, but ascendant nationalist feeling (especially in the form of the BJP) seems critical to understanding the Hindutva movement.

There are, of course, exceptions – The New York Times ran two comprehensive political pieces – but generally, international reports have contextualized this case using free speech laws, but skim over the elements of Indian politics that are critical to understanding Hindu nationalism. Calling the Shiksha Bachao Andolan simply “conservative Hindu activists,” as the Chicago Tribune did, may be true, but it ignores the length and breadth of the group’s attempts to limit free speech – The Hindus isn’t the first book to be forbidden. Also, if these stories call us to concern about freedom of speech in India, international readers should understand the mechanics by which speech might be limited: via the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, for example, or the growing influence of conservative groups like the SBA, not simply the law.

If the international media want to worry us, they should give us concrete political reasons to worry. Vague statements about “conservatism” aren’t enough.

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