Self censorship and Doniger: The real enemy is not Big Brother

The Doniger controversy is likely to have a more serious impact on how academic research will be viewed in India.

Shruti Dhapola February 13, 2014 16:27:08 IST
Self censorship and Doniger: The real enemy is not Big Brother

Penguin’s decision to withdraw and no longer publish Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History has raised an outcry on social media. While the book was never officially banned nor were there any protests asking for a ban, in this case the publisher has simply decided not to renew the book’s new edition. In addition, Penguin shockingly agreed to recall all unsold copies and destroy them.

While Doniger has issued a statement on the same, Penguin itself has chosen to remain quiet on the issue. For now, it would be fair to see this as an instance of self-censorship, one where a publisher chose to drop a title rather than continue with a long-winding legal battle.

This isn’t the only case of right-wing extremism prevailing in the recent page. At the Kala Ghodha festival in Mumbai this year, organisers decided to drop a play Ali J from its screening schedule after a fringe hindu rightwing group Hindu Janjagriti Samiti (HJS) threatened protests.

The group lodged a complaint with a local police station demanding that the show be canceled as it was "anti-Hindu and anti-national".

Self censorship and Doniger The real enemy is not Big Brother

Wendy Doniger has said the flaw is with Indian law. Image courtesy: YouTube

The organisers chose to the cancel the play fearing a law and order problem. Interestingly the group had faced similar protests from right wing groups in Bangalore as well, but thanks to police protection the play had been held.

The Doniger controversy is likely to have a more serious impact on how academic research will be viewed in this country vis-a-vis more controversial subjects, given that Penguin is one of the biggest publishers in India. Doniger is also well-known Indologist.

"These kinds of decisions could make some academics wary of venturing into 'controversial' or 'problematic' grounds, especially those dealing with religion. This is a pity because we need so much more good work on the history of religion," said Dr Upinder Singh, well-known historian and professor at Delhi University .

"The fact that a big, powerful company like Penguin, with all its resources, decided not to pursue the case to the very end is a very sad matter indeed. It would be good to hear more about what its reasons and motivations were. Without such clarifications and the understanding they provide, it is really difficult to mount an effective defence of freedom of expression in India," said Anja Kovacs,  Director of Internet Democracy Project in Delhi, who has also worked extensively on freedom of speech issue as well.

The Doniger incident, is also being seen as an unwelcome reminder of growing conservative opinion, that not many are keen to challenge.

"While the outrage to this incident has been swift, coming at the time that it does is worrying. We are seeing a strengthening of the ultra conservative political opinion in India. You might see this kind of incident happening again and again,” says Arjun Sheoran, a lawyer who’s also the spokesperson for People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Punjab and Haryana.

Be it Doniger’s book or the screening of a play Ali J, the easy victory for fringe-based right groups is worrying.

"Of course, what is happening is scary. However these incidents are also an opportunity to showcase what you stand for. People, organisers, do have a choice. In Bangalore, too when we took our play, the people, police came out in support. In the end, calls need to be taken on the basis of belief, not fear. If you don’t support an art-work or a play, it sends out a wrong signal,” says Sunil Vishnu, part of Evam Entertainment, which produced the play Ali J.

But when it comes to religious sentiment, the legal battle is not an easy one to win, especially where Section 295 A of IPC goes. Section 295 A deals with deliberate and malicious acts, which are intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.

Sheoran says that the level of harassment that companies, and writers face can be too much to stand.

"The harassment that authors and publishers can face is very discouraging. Despite the fact that Penguin is a very big publisher and they chose to settle shows how tough it can be to fight it out in court. Also Section 295 A is a criminal offence and often the case is personally against the CEO, the MD of the publishing company. It really affects the company’s image as well,” he added.

Will the Doniger incident lead to more self-censorship where academicians and research are concerned?

"It is not unthinkable that academics will choose their topics with even greater care, as well as being extremely conscious about their writing even where less-controversial topics are concerned. One never knows beforehand which road research will lead one down to, and so issues that are sensitive can end up cropping up even in research where one had never expected this beforehand," Kovacs said.

She said the biggest victims in cases are India’s people.

"Even if academics continue to pursue the topics that they feel deserve attention, Indian people will no longer be able to access and critically engage with all of this writing that is produced about their country, culture and heritage. Only people not actually living in the country will be able to do so. That is a tremendous loss," she pointed out.

But the fight for freedom of speech is unlikely to stop so easily. The age of Internet has also made censorship of any kind hard to carry out.

"When it comes to art of any kind, or music or play, you can’t dictate you can show this, but you can’t show that. Or you can only show this in America. In a globalised world, censorship of any kind fails. There are so many platforms now to showcase your work. For instance, we put out our play on YouTube for everyone to see,” Vishnu said.

According to Kovacs, it may also result in people realising the importance of the freedom of expression.

“Such groups have been protesting for a longer time, at least since 1990. While such instances do make some more likely to engage in self-censorship, they also make many people realise increasingly the importance of freedom of expression in a vibrant and democratic diverse society such as India,” says Kovacs.

However Penguin’s decision to settle is also being seen as the mark of dangerous beginning.

"The entire episode is a negative landmark where freedom of speech is concerned. It should be noted that in the past several books have been banned but the publishers have almost never withdrawn the offending book per se. In that sense, this is different and worrying," Sheoran said.

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