The company said it had to adhere to the laws of India, including those that make it a criminal act to offend religious beliefs or feeling. Furthermore, Penguin said it had a duty of care to protect its employees from any threats or attacks.
Written by Wendy Doniger, the book was at the center of a legal challenge, which argued that the text caused offense to the Hindu religion and Hindus. A Hindu campaign group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan
launched a civil case three-years-ago against the publisher, in which it claimed the booked contained offensive material. The term it used was ‘heresies’.
Penguin India succeeded in reaching an out of court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan. Nevertheless, Penguin India’s decision to pull the book came in for criticism from many who believed it undermined free speech. People also wanted to know why a company of Penguin India’s stature kowtowed to minor and little-known pressure group.
Although Penguin India has yet to give a straight answer to the questions, it did release a statement in which it said it was obliged to respect India’s laws “however intolerant or restrictive”. Under Indian law, or in this case, its penal code, it is a crime to (deliberately) outrage or insult “religious feelings” either in spoken or written words. As a result, Penguin India believed it was in a precarious position, especially when the challenge from Shiksha Bachao Andolan arose.
However, Penguin has warned that the existence and implementation of these laws and similar ones will prevent other publishers to publish such books from fear that the avenue for free expression is being closed off. Indian author Arundhati Roy, the woman behind Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things also waded into the debate and wrote a letter to Penguin asking exactly why it reversed it decision on the book
Doniger, the book’s author, said while she understood Penguin’s decision to pull the book, she was incensed because she feared for the future of freedom of speech in India. Now she is faced with a new chapter of the episode as Penguin India, the publisher of controversial book The Hindus: An Alternative History by a renowned US scholar, has broken its silence and defended its decision to recall the book.
The reaction to the book has similarities to that of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses. Inspired in part by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the booked outraged many Muslims and resulted in then Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issuing a fatwā (religious ruling) calling for Rushdie’s death. Rushdie then spent years in hiding in Great Britain. The decree was reversed in 2005.
Now nine years on Penguin India, the publisher of controversial book The Hindus: An Alternative History by a renowned US scholar, has broken its silence and defended its decision to recall the book.
By Robert Shepherd