Friday, 14 February 2014

India's Salman Rushdie Moment

We often think of Hinduism (as opposed to Hindu Nationalists), as a peaceable religion, except where it clashes with Islam (a trait which it shares with every other religion which bumps up against Islam), so its with some surprise to find that a book written by an American scholar, Wendy Doniger, has elicited a response from Hindu's that reminds one very much of the treatment of Salman Rushdie for writing his book 'The Satanic Verses'.

Her book, 'The Hindus: An Alternative History', published by Penguin Books in India, has attracted much criticism, because according to the complainants, the book 'is insulting to Hindus', containing what they describe as "heresies".  Some of which meant that "She denounced the Hindu Gods and freedom fighters of India", as well as containing some factual errors.

The case went to court, under another of India's archaic laws, that makes it a 'criminal' rather than a 'civil offence', to publish a book that offends any Hindu .... much like the Muslim view that anything that offends them is to be condemned via a Fatwa (religious ban).

A Declaration Of 'No Free Speech'?
And guess what, the threat of a court case running over many years has allegedly (they haven't officially confirmed the climbdown), led to Penguin Books in India to agree with the complainants, and to recall and destroy all remaining copies of the book - an act of self censorship, which has profound implications for freedom of speech in India.

However, many Indians have been quick to realise this implication, and the decision of Penguin India to bow to religious groups pressure, and withdraw the book, has brought criticism .... Indian cabinet minister Jairam Ramesh told the Press Trust of India the decision was "atrocious", adding the book was "not blasphemous by any means". Well known Indian Historian Ramachandra Guha called the news "deeply disappointing. The answer to a book one doesn't like is another book, not a ban, or legal action, or physical intimidation," ... and that's the difference between India and its neighbour and enemy.

In India there is a fear and recognition that some religious groups are stifling free speech and artistic expression ..... nearly last word to Doniger herself  "The true villain of this piece  ... is a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book."

This story has escalated since I wrote this earlier in the month ..... so it may have legs.

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