A leaked copy of an agreement where Penguin India undertakes to recall and destroy all copies of the book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” has taken Twitter by storm. Unsurprisingly, it is the Hindutvawadis with their rigid insistence on controlling the correct interpretation of Hinduism who have been the challenge. A case filed by Dina Nath Batra, convenor of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti makes all kinds of important or bizarre (depending on your perspective) observations.
To me, this was mostly a good opportunity to run riot with my favorite accusation, now also a pun. “The Hindutvawadis are destroying The Hindus” and variations thereof.
Perhaps I don’t take the matter with the gravity it deserves. Or perhaps there is a knee jerk intellectual tendency to park on the opposite side of the Hindutvawadis (which is a pretty solid default to have, most of the time), but I don’t see this as a matter of censorship. It is simply a configuration of prevailing circumstances ranging from the laws to orthodox mindsets, and frankly, India has worse problems.
I don’t believe in absolute free speech. It is a myth. What any place has is an agreement that draws a line demarcating where you swing your hand and where I have my nose, so to say. Some places have the line pushed so far to one side that it doesn’t exist. These would be lawless places, and the free speech probably wouldn’t get compensated by the other risks in terms of quality of life. Other places have a heavy set of rules on what can be said and what cannot. Most places lie somewhere in the middle. For instance, leaking out secret passwords or other information won’t count as your right to free speech (unless it is your information). While the line should never be drawn in a place where it ends up putting collective preferences over an individual’s autonomy, such a utopia does not exist and whether we “see” the “unfairness” or not is largely about whether people like us are bothered by it.
So while I wouldn’t be offended by such a book, being an atheist, I wouldn’t be offended by any book reinterpreting religion. I don’t do religion. I dare say I’d be offended by a book promoting fascist thoughts being sold openly. I bet the RSS wouldn’t mind. And it is complex. Not many free speechers for example protested for banned extremist sites to be unbanned. I most certainly didn’t, and I’d oppose them being unbanned. My reasoning would be that it promotes results in real life that will harm people. The case against the book took a similar and opposite stand, that it would attack the Hindu identity by distorting it into something people don’t recognize.
And this can be argued till the end of time. Right wing intolerant thoughts are unbalanced, one sided and primitive. I have no hesitation accepting this is my opinion. At the same time, primitive or not, they are a large part of the country and in a democracy have the right to influence that “line” of what is allowed and what isn’t as per their wish as well. I don’t have to like it, and I don’t like it. But I have to suck it up and accept that our laws are what they are, and we have created them as a country.
In my view, if orthodox Hindus with “injured” feelings have been fighting a four year case in courts without killing, injuring somone or burning their belongings, or at least a car or thrashing a few people or calling the author a slut, etc, it actually counts as a welcome change in India. To those who cannot fathom it, Indian right wing rules on the street rather than lose intellectual battles on paper. It is fascist, yes. I am not defending it. Only describing what is normal. Countless incidences of vandalism, riots, aron and more stand witness that the Hindu right in India has to really mellow down to fight a case by the rules alone.
And Penguin did not have to agree with them. The public seems to be under some belief that Penguin is a humanitarian organization promoting their political goals of free speech (read resistance to right wing suppression of liberal thought). They are a publishing house with a business to run in an era when publishing is already fighting to survive. They cannot take over our job – that of creating laws condusive to free speech. If their book breaks laws, at the end of the day it will be cheaper to pulp it than fight a losing battle in court AND earn the ire of the political right as well (which the supposed vanguards of free speech won’t support an inch beyond writing op-eds). Besides Penguin probably knows that the book got more publicity with this ban than without it.
People who wouldn’t touch a book called “The Hindus” with a 10 foot pole out of sheer disinterest, will probably buy it out of rebellion or curiosity for accessing the forbidden. Sheer titillation. “If it got banned (for the public, this is as good as a ban), there must be something really scandalous in it. Which probably means I can claim to own it or have read it and tell others with great effect.” Penguin is an old player. Penguin knows this. Cold blooded? No more than any other business playing with the cards they have been dealt.
The way I look at it, if we want people not bowing down to laws we find unfair, then it is our job to change unfair laws as a country before expecting Penguin to take a lead in fighting religious intolerance in this instance because it is them directly targeted. And we can try to change laws, but we will fail. Because we are a minority occupying our own corner in the media, while the media getting mass consumed is still showing three shocked reaction shots per slightest lack of respect to Gods, which in turn is possible by people clearly marked as “villain”.
It is time for the assorted seculars, liberals, free speechers to realize that the country does not seek them out in their armchairs and update their opinions based on what they say. Most of India doesn’t even know the names of the newspapers where these lofty thoughts reside. They will need to come across thoughts that show them why one way of thinking is better than another, and we have done a pathetic job of it so far. I am not leaving myself out of this accusation.
I am just sucking it up and realizing that my “The Hindutwadis wrecked The Hindus” metaphors will have to wait, because in this instance The Hindus got screwed by the creators, because the Hindus failed to evolve thoughts of the Hindus as a whole. Which probably is another metaphor.