NEW DELHI — In a fight with a major company, a frail, 84-year-old retired headmaster would seem to be the David to India’s publishing Goliath, Penguin Books India.
But last week, the retiree, Dinanath Batra, achieved the crowning victory of his career as a right-wing campaigner, when a lawsuit he had filed prompted Penguin to withdraw and destroy remaining copies of a scholarly work on Hinduism by an American professor that Batra has called “malicious,” “dirty” and “perverse.”
Batra’s assiduous legal filings in defense of his religion had sometimes paid off, but never like this. India’s intellectuals stopped in their tracks last week, wondering what had induced Penguin Books India to settle out of court with what one writer termed “an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit.” The Times of India warned of “Taliban-like forces,” and a prominent columnist denounced “the pulping of liberal India.”
The announcement has rippled through a city bracing itself for big change. Three months remain before general elections, in which the center-left party Indian National Congress is expected to suffer one of the worst losses in its history to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.
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The BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, has campaigned on his economic policies, appealing to the frustrated expectations of India’s new middle class. Though he has a long association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu right-wing organization, in the campaign he has stayed far away from divisive language on religion.
The governing Congress party’s record on freedom of speech is hardly stellar, as evidenced by India’s sliding ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Even Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” was banned in India by a Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi that was fearful of offending Muslims.
But now many scholars and intellectuals are worried that an ideological shift is on its way. Past Hindu nationalist governments have been marked by battles over religion and history. Artists tackling religious themes have been targeted by fringe groups, with an amorphous threat of violence never far away.
As for Batra, he said he had no links to the BJP but that he expected efforts like his to pick up steam after the elections.
“Good days are coming, boys; I see the signs of a change in political atmosphere,” he said. “Congress is coming down, and the third front is coming out and Modi is also coming out. The 60-year rule is coming to an end.”
On Friday, Penguin offered its first explanation for its decision to withdraw its book, Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” which was released five years ago in India and the United States. In 2010, Batra filed a legal notice to the publishing house, charging that the book was “written with a Christian missionary zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light.” In 2011, he filed a civil suit.
In the statement, Penguin stands by its decision to publish the book and notes that it defended the book for four years, but it says that section 295a of the Indian penal code — which applies to “malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings” — makes it difficult to uphold freedom of expression “without deliberately placing itself outside the law.”
Publishers must respect laws, “however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be,” the statement said. “We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can.”
Doniger, a University of Chicago professor, in a statement posted on social media, expressed anger and disappointment, adding: “I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate,” she said.
Batra said the book insulted Hinduism by discussing the sexual desires of figures in Hindu mythology and by describing the Mahabharata, one of the epic stories that make up the Hindu canon, as a fictional work. He also said the book contained factual inaccuracies such as a map of India that excludes Kashmir, the northern state that is the subject of a territorial dispute with Pakistan.
There is no evidence that Penguin’s concession is linked to the coming election, but for some commentators last week, the two things converged.
Arundhati Roy, the leftist writer and activist, addressed a letter to Penguin, her own publisher, asking why the company had compromised “even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order.”
“What was it that terrified you?” Roy wrote in a column for The Times of India. “The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, this far, only campaigning. Yes, it’s looking bad, but they are not in power. Not yet. And you’ve already succumbed?”
Some observers argue that it is too early to assume a BJP-led government would be interested in wading into ideological disputes.
Ashok Malik, a popular Indian columnist who has written extensively about Modi, called it “scaremongering.” When BJP last took power, more than a decade ago, he said, “the cultural warriors got very excited about history textbooks, which, unfortunately, are written by the state.”
But he said the party’s current leaders — among them Modi — “believe that debate is over,” and are focused on goals that matter more to BJP’s target voters, such as building capacity in the higher-education system.
There is little dispute that India’s reputation for tolerance is fraying. Doniger’s book is only the most recent to be withdrawn when faced with the threat of costly litigation.
In January, Bloomsbury India withdrew copies of “The Descent of Air India” against its author’s wishes, and it published an apology to a Congress-allied government minister who came in for heavy criticism in the book. In December, the Supreme Court granted a stay of publication of “Sahara: The Untold Story,” an investigation of Indian finance and real-estate conglomerate Sahara India Pariwar, until a lawsuit filed by Sahara Group’s head was resolved.
The withdrawal of Doniger’s book has provided a focus for frustration. A petition circulated Thursday by a group of prominent scholars, several based in the United States, demanded changes to India’s penal code that would protect serious academic work from frivolous lawsuits and said that “academic, intellectual and artistic expression of any kind is becoming increasingly hazardous in India.”
But in Batra’s modest office, the mood was bright, even celebratory. He offered biscuits to journalists who came and went all day and checked off the well-wishers who had written to congratulate him, including the vice chancellor of Gujarat University.
“I will just give you the observation of a judge in the case, who said: ‘I started to read it, but I stopped halfway because it was so vulgar and dirty,’ so the judge had given his opinion,” he said. Now, he said, “this society will change, and at the same time there will be a warning not to publish such rubbish books.”
He said his next target was another of Doniger’s books, “On Hinduism,” which he had already festooned with bright green Post-it notes. He dreams of creating a panel to review textbooks for the first 12 grades of India’s government schools. Asked how many he would like to replace, he waved a hand: all of them.
“Alternate books will come out,” he said. “We shall give them guidelines.”
Doniger, meanwhile, suggested the power of the Internet might keep her work alive in India, regardless of the legal battle over physical copies of books.
“I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book … if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.”
At the very least, attention has been good for business. Her 800-page book quickly shot up the best-seller chart on Amazon.com, reaching No. 9 on the retailer’s top 100 list by Saturday.
Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.