Statement by Scholars in North American Universities on Withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book

This statement expresses the views of the individuals listed below and does not represent the views of the University of Chicago or any of its departments.

We, the undersigned, as students of South Asia, strongly condemn the withdrawal by Penguin Press India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from distribution in India. We believe that this work has been attacked because it presents a threat to orthodox Brahminical interpretations of Hinduism. We believe that this attack is part of ongoing attempts by upper-caste extremist Hindu forces to stifle any alternative understandings of Hinduism. As students in the United States, we are acutely aware that North American organizations of the Hindu right initiated the protests against Wendy Doniger’s scholarship. Hindu right wing organisations in India have worked in tandem with their North American counterparts to suppress alternative voices in India and too often violently. We are deeply concerned about the alarming increase in attacks on any academic study of Hinduism that does not fit these groups’ narrow and exclusionary vision of Hinduism which is part of their desire to create a Hindu India that excludes the religious minorities of Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.

Wendy Doniger, a respected scholar who is devoted to the study of Hinduism, has astutely recognized the great danger to human life and the plural practices and beliefs of Hindus posed by these groups. She has courageously refused to bow to their pressures to curtail her scholarship and has consistently challenged the Hindu right. By tracking the formation of myth through history, her work undermines these groups’ exclusionary claims on the past.

As researchers we know that a singular narrative of Hinduism, as of any living tradition, is completely untenable. This incident is indicative of the genocidal imagination of these groups that seek to extinguish the idea of a plural and secular India. This attack on Wendy Doniger’s scholarship is reminiscent of the earlier attacks on the scholarship of AK Ramanujan carried out by Hindu fundamentalist student organisations. We protest the rise of majoritarian narratives that curtail different ways of knowing the world and urge scholars, researchers, academics and people of all persuasions to call for Wendy Doniger’s book to be brought back into circulation in India. We join others who have articulated their protest against the withdrawal in refusing the singular, elitist and exclusionary imaginings of the past that are used to do violence to our shared present.

Signed:

Shefali Jha

Malarvizhi Jayanth

Ahona Panda

Aakash Solanki

Sayantan Saha Roy

Tejas Parasher

Suchismita Das

Abhishek Bhattacharyya

Joya John

Emma Meyer

Kyle Gardner

Erin Epperson

Victor D’Avella

Joseph Grim Feinberg

Ranu Roychoudhuri

Ishan Chakrabarti

Margherita Trento

Adam O’Brien

Madlyn Wendell

Jeff Wilson

Jetsun Deleplanque

Leah Richmond

Jamal Jones

Saumya Gupta

Davey K. Tomlinson

Madhuri Karak

Harini Kumar

Elsa J.Marty

 

In solidarity:

Ankit Agrawal

Dhananjay Jagannathan

Shiva Shankar

Ravi Vaitheespara

Daniel Sellon

16 thoughts on “Statement by Scholars in North American Universities on Withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book”

  1. Aditya, I believe you are a Marxist scholar. Therefore, I am surprised that you would encourage these students from a US University (!) to indulge in misinformation and standard propaganda peculiar to Television Evangelists in Western countries or uneducated Communists and leftists in India. Here are the facts which I am sure you are aware of:

    1. Penguin Press is a capitalist corporation concerned about making money. It was a law suit in an Indian court of law that led to the withdrawal of the distribution of Ms Doniger’s book in India. They probably realized that the law suit could amount to significant financial loss, but withdrawal would make the book popular, and enhance its sale. It seems like a prudent business decision and nothing else.
    2. Upper caste extremist Hindu forces attacking the book! Who are they? Ashish Nandy of your institution was not wrong when he stated that no low caste Hindu could ever reach to top in CPM which certainly is not an extremist Hindu organization. On the other hand, the Hindutva leaders Thakre, Modi and baba Ramdev do not belong to upper castes
    3. If you go by names, a few Hindu signatories of the Statement seem to belong to upper castes, but most signatories have Christian names. Marx, while criticizing the role of religion in society, was not thinking of any particular religion. And if he was, it could be either Christianity or Judaism and not any other religion.
    4. Unlike Middle Eastern or Abrahminical religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Hinduism is a collection of numerous religions which include atheism, agnosticism, tribal gods and so forth. Therefore ample opportunities to admire it or criticize. Hinduism in its early form, when it was not Hinduism, can be called Brahmanical. The transformation in the people’s belief system that happened in India due to a Dalit Sage Valmiki and Tribal Sage Vyas, known as Hinduism, has little resemblance with the Brahmanical scriptures. This Puranic Hinduism was criticized by learned Brahmins, such as founder of Arya Samaj Dayananda or that of Brahma Samaj Ram Mohan Roy and others.
    5. Very recently an attempt to deny the credit of first Ramayana to Dalit Sage Valmiki was done by an Iyengar Brahmin, Ramanujan, who was strongly supported by another Brahmin Apoorvanand Jha. on Kafila web site. It looks like Communism is currently the last resort to upper caste Hindus, particularly Brahmins. Starting from Namboodiripad and Dange to Basu and Karat, please look at who they are. They are upper caste Hindus, but not supporters of Hindu fundamentalism. Should one then blame them for the decisions of Penguin Press?

    Aditya, leftist intellectuals like you need not encourage falsehood. Otherwise, Marxism will become politically extinct in a poverty ridden country like India.

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    1. RDS, you are completely off the mark on everything you say. You live in a closed world and are welcome to do so. As far as I am concerned the simple fact of the matter is that scholarship must be refuted with scholarship. We are totally opposed to anything that resorts to any of the methods like banning or withdrawing some work under threats. I am sure you will not understand this but then I do not intend to convince you either.

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      1. Aditya, I read your blogs with interest and admire you as a scholar and thinker, and totally agree with you that scholarship must be refuted with scholarship only, and not by threat. I had no problem with the condemnation of Penguin Press in the first sentence of Statement. But the emphasis on the upper castes and Hindu extremism being the reason of withdrawal, and not the Indian law, was wrong and defeats the issue of censorship. It should be noted that the book was withdrawn from circulation in India only, and not in US. If one really wants that the freedom of expression should not be restricted, then it must be seen where it is coming from. The freedom of expression cannot be preserved, if wrong culprits are identified. I would allow that freedom to every one, including upper caste extremist Hindus, unless they act against the law of the land. To me Marxism is an ideology, and not a religion, that should be fought for without understanding it. Finally, I must say I did understand your good intentions, and that is why I commented in the first place. I may not be a thinker like you, but I have read Doniger’s books on Hinduism and also their criticism by some world-renowned Jewish Professors, but that is not an issue we are discussing here. Finally, I must admire you by letting me explain, a tendency that some pseudo-intellectuals on this site lack.

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    2. RDS, you have some interesting points and Nigam’s openness in allowing your comment to escape the guillotin of moderation is remarkable as well.

      The world is indeed complex. Your conclusion that: “Marxism will become politically extinct in a poverty ridden country like India” seems off base to me. I think to the contrary, as long as poverty exists, Marxism will thrive. Marxism is not a thing to “wither away” on its own. It remains a minority faith, albeit a strongly polarizing one… but its expression deserves to be preserved so that we don’t repeat history (Marx’s famous words).

      Now, though Macaulay etc could be blamed (

      http://sabhlokcity.com/2014/02/indias-anti-free-speech-laws-how-macaulay-chose-to-pander-to-crazy-indians-than-to-insist-on-freedom-and-order/ ) it remains undeniable that free India continues to sustain these IPC S.153A, S.295A and have added on now I.T. Act 66A. If the majority of Indians (which would be Hindus) are not to blame for it, then who should be blamed ? See also http://sabhlokcity.com/2014/02/hinduism-stands-for-absolute-free-speech/ which is the framework in Hinduism for free speech but rarely seen in practise in modern India. I think that is the real discussion, not the caste captaincy of Indian Marxism which is clearly a minority.

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    3. Your concern for Marx and Marxism in India is very touching. As someone who shares that concern, and as a drafter and signatory to this statement I would also recommend that you educate yourself about Hinduism, Marx and the ‘Abrahamic religions’ from some source other than the kind of text/books prescribed by the honourable Shiksha se Bachao Andolan Samiti. Some information and thinking about what ‘Brahminism’ means may also be helpful. Let me give you a hint to start off with: it is not only to do with being a Brahmin.

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      1. It may be pleasing to you that the Statement you drafted has led to an informative discussion, courtesy Aditya Nigam’s intellectual openness. Your concern for Marxism is justified, as Communist Party in US is illegal, and it is dead, if not yet buried, in ex-USSR. Ms Doniger is not a Marxist. An alternative interpretation of Hindus may work for her and you, but you would run into problems if you made a similar attempt for Abrahamic religions in US. In US almost half of the population still believes in Creation. However, you will do well in India, because of the US degree and your privileged family background that facilitated it. My village background and education in a low grade UP University restricted me to self-educate in literature, history and politics. I have great admiration for the scholarly discourses of Mathil Brahmin Sages Yajnavalkya, Gargi and Maitreyi (Brihadaranyak Upanishad), which are of little use to working class people who could not understand them. Therefore a complementary alternative belief system was needed and provided by Dalit Sage Valmiki and Tribal Sage Vyasa and others. This would be a Marxist approach to look at Hindu religions, in my opinion, and to bring castes into picture has no relevance. A Marxist must not alienate the working class people by attacking their religions, but work on removing economic disparity with their help. In addition, an intellectual, whether Marxist or not, must not compromise with the facts or falsify them. That is what religious fanatics do. In addition, he/she must not censor the interpretation of facts by non-Marxists, but effectively counter them, as pointed by Aditya Nigam. Casting aspersions on an opponent is a trait of politicians and not intellectuals. Finally, I hope you read about George Sudarshan, a famous Physicist in US, and follow leftist intellectuals like Ashish Nandy and Aditya Nigam in India.

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  2. while i agree no books should be banned, my question is, would your stand be the same for alternative interpretation of Islam and Christianity?

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    1. Hina, Only if one had the patience to listen to what people like us are saying! We have opposed the attacks, bans and fatwas on people like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen – and elsewhere on this very blog you can get evidence of this. We uphold the right of the Malala’s of this world who are under attack by the Taliban. What is more, those of us who teach, actually teach what you might say are “different interpretations of Islam and Christianity” – which includes all the heterodox currents. So for once, please leave aside this tired Hindu Right propaganda and try to see what people actually are saying before you jump to conclusions.

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  3. Dear Aditya,

    When I object to the likes of Doniger, I do it because she pronounces her judgement based on quoting Hindu texts out of context. I will show this in an example below; you as a learned man yourself tell me if my anger is misplaced or not:

    Wendy writes in the preface, relating Non Violence, and I quote “Arjuna, the heroic warrior of the Mahabharata, the great ancient Sanskrit poem about a tragic war, excuses the violence of war by saying, “Creatures live on creatures, the stronger on the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, just as the cat eats the mongoose; the dog devours the cat, your majesty, and wild beasts eat the dog. Even ascetics [tapasas] cannot stay alive without killing” [12.15.16-24]. The text here justifies human violence by the violence that is rampant in the animal world. Yet the most common sense of ahimsa refers to humans’ decision to rise above animal violence.”unquote

    I checked up Mahabharata original text, Chap12, Sec 15 verses 16-24. It refers to Arjuna replying to Yudhishthira (along with three other brothers and Draupadi who have done in previous Sections). Yudhishthira’s comment was that he wanted to renounce the kingdom, the worldly pleasures and lead the life of an ascetic. This is mentioned in the Sec 9 of the same Chapter. Therefore, amongst all other arguments that he, their wife and his brother puts forward to desist Yudhishthira from taking the extreme step, he also states the natures law. Following what Wendy has already quoted, Arjuna says, “This mobile and immobile universe is food for living creatures. This has, been ordained by the gods. The man of knowledge, therefore, is never stupefied at it. It behoveth thee, O great king, to become that which thou art by birth.In water, on earth, and fruits, there are innumerable creatures. It is not true that one does not slaughter them. What higher duty is there than supporting one’s life? There are many creatures that are so minute that their existence can only be inferred. With the failing of the eyelids alone, they are destroyed.”

    Doesn’t what Arjuna said make sense? Is is possible to do anything without a modicum of violence to living beings in general? Within the context of human violence, didn’t the Pandavas gave peace enough chance all through the Udyogparva? After the war, didn’t Yudhishthira pursue the process of reconciliation? Didn’t he take the advice of Vidura while doing so?

    People like me therefore feel frustrated about not having a voice to counter the likes of Doniger. Penguin or OUP will never publish them and liberals actually call them names and get personal. I agree that the vandalism that RSS and its cohorts do are reprehensible and I do not condone that (Ditto for Jamat-e-Islami and other folks). Likewise, I hate the fact that without a public debate the western views go unchallenged. No recourse for me I guess. :)

    Regards,
    Sandeepan

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    1. Sandeepan,
      Your comment is as it should be. This is the debate we should be having – a contest over different interpretations of different texts. However, it is not something that can simply be reduced to ‘Western scholarship’ – for being ‘Indian scholarship’ provides no guarantee of its being good scholarship. In any case, you can reasonably disagree with even very good scholarship, wherever it may emanate from.
      I just want to add one small bit here with regard to the specific part you cite. This is a very important debate in Mahabharata studies and in the case of classical Indian thought. In the 1980s, Mukund Lath, who writes mainly in Hindi, wrote a path-breaking piece on this issue, following upon his long engagement with the Mahabharata. Here he underlined his discovery that in the epic, it was not nonviolence that was extolled as the highest virtue but non-cruelty (anrishamsya), because violence was considered inescapable to living. This is a position that is challenged by the Sramanic traditions – especially Jainism and Buddhism but that is a separate story. In more recent times, a number of intellectuals, from the philosopher JL Mehta to Sibaji Bandyopadhyay (to name just two ‘Indians’), have written on this ‘critique of non-violence’ in the Mahabharata and the Hindu tradition. As a matter of fact, this idea of violence being integral to life is quite pervasive in Indian thought and the popularity of the term ‘matsyanyaya’ captures that quite well. I think we need to think about the philosophical implications of this position rather than reduce it to a crude contest in contemporary politics where an embarrassed Hindu outfit wants to purge everything it finds uncomfortable from its version of Hinduism.

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  4. Would appreciate that we get to the root of the problem and fix it once and for all: India’s anti- free speech Constitution and laws. A draft Free Speech Manifesto outlines the issue, and a long term solution to the relentless assault on free speech by fanatics of all kinds: http://sanjeev.sabhlokcity.com/Misc/Free-Speech-Manifesto.doc. Please also join this Facebook page to support free speech: https://www.facebook.com/Absolute.Freedom.of.Speech

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  5. The discussion on social media and in the mainstream media about Wendy Doniger and her book The Hindus: An Alternative History has tended to focus on a single issue: Whether Doniger’s freedom of expression had been violated when her publisher, Penguin India, decided to withdraw the book from circulation (only in India).

    Of course, the book remains available on shelves outside India, and also in e-book form on the Internet, so anyone in India who wants to access it can feel free to use those channels.

    There is an intriguing question as to what ‘Freedom of expression’ a non-Indian is entitled to in India. Not being a lawyer, I don’t know, but an educated guess is that, in fact, a foreigner is entitled to no such freedom as an explicit guarantee in the Constitution or the criminal or civil codes; however, that there are commonly accepted guidelines that most nations (except authoritarian ones) may follow in the spirit of reciprocity.

    These may mean that, in practice, a foreigner gets as much freedom of speech as a citizen. But we will leave that question aside for the moment.

    The point I wish to emphasise, though, is that there is much disinformation and misinformation floating about, especially in the heat of debate, about what happened. It may be better to consider what did not happen: The book was NOT banned. There were NO book burnings. There were NO riots. The author was NOT sent death threats. In fact, there was none of the fanfare or theatrics that usually accompanies censorship.

    On the contrary, the plaintiffs pursued due process. They went to court. I wish to emphasise that: They went to court, and following a truly democratic protest mechanism, filed a suit claiming (among other things) that they were offended, and their religious sentiments were hurt.

    The court considered the suit, but before it could announce a verdict, the parties came to a peaceful, negotiated, out of court settlement. I believe the word you are searching for is ‘civilised’.

    So whose rights were violated? The defendants — the author and the publisher — could (and probably did) hire the most outstanding lawyer they could afford, and they argue their case based on Indian law.

    The plaintiffs could (and probably did) argue their case. The defendants could have waited for the court to give its verdict (which may well have favoured them). But they did not, and settled out of court. They may have thought they would lose the case. Or they may have felt there was commercial value in withdrawing the book and pulping unsold copies. And so they did.

    So where is the compulsion? Isn’t this the free market, and democratic protest?

    I will not dwell on this, but there have been other cases in India where the clarion call ‘Freedom of expression in danger’ was heard (or in some cases, not). There were also riots, death threats, physical assaults, book burnings, and all sorts of other dramatic effects. But in this case, there was none. Isn’t that a remarkable achievement?

    There is also the argument that ‘Freedom of expression’ is never absolute. In 1999, I argued in my column The Problem with Fire that the film of the same name violated the principle that those who wish to exercise that freedom were also obliged to act with responsibility, so that they did not cause serious problems.

    For instance, even though you have every right to shout ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre, you also have the responsibility to not do so, as it could cause a stampede. Thus, one has to exercise freedoms with responsibilities. As someone who likes to express his opinion in writing, I could never condone censorship, but I also accept that it must be responsible.

    Furthermore, nowhere in the world is hate speech protected. Even the US, with its cherished First Amendment, will seldom condone hate speech — I have seen people with extreme opinions being physically restrained from expressing them. It could be argued, and it has been, that Wendy Doniger, an American, has stepped over the border from ‘free speech’ to ‘hate speech’. A petition circulated on the Web laid out that case.

    You might argue that the relevant Indian laws, specifically the Indian Penal Code Sections 153A and 295A, reproduced below, are not good laws. I might even agree with you on that, because they are vague, and rather draconian.

    153A. Whoever (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility… shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.[3]

    295A/ Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.[4]

    But if you disagree with the laws, there is a democratic process to change them: So you should pursue it. So long as they are on the statute books, they can be enforced, even though you may not like it. Them, as they say, is the breaks.

    One of the things that Hindus have seldom realised in India is that these laws exist, and they have teeth. Personally, I think these are bad laws, and not in keeping with the civilisational ethos of the nation, but I have no choice but to respect them.

    To focus on the religious aspect for a moment, these laws make sense only in an Abrahamic environment, where the Semitic religions, all of which are exclusive, and believe themselves to be only truth, and therefore oppress those who are not adherents.

    In India, religious oppression became an issue only after the advent of Abrahamic invaders. Prior to their arrival, religious arguments were settled by debate (almost never, with perhaps two exceptions — one Sasanka in Bengal, and the other a Kashmiri king — by force) in 5,000 years.

    In debate, the loser lost nothing more than that s/he had to join the winner’s religion (as was the case in Sankara’s famous debates). Thus, these rules are somewhat senseless in India, and are part of the excessive pandering to ‘religious minorities’ (another senseless term, but outside our scope here) that is routine in India.

    And the ‘religious minorities’ have made very fine use of these laws. They have a clear modus operandi, as was once explained to me by an apostate. If offended (and they are easily offended), one lot resorts to violence, including riots, death threats, and other such.

    Another lot will hold a large peaceful march, shouting slogans. Both these are designed to (and will) induce the application of 295A and/or 153A, and the poor devil accused of ‘offending’ certain tender sensitivities will be frog-marched off to jail.

    This happens with monotonous frequency: All of us know of many instances. But if a Hindu has a similar problem, he does not understand the modus operandi. He may riot, which brings down the full force of the State upon him, not to mention the opprobrium of the self-proclaimed liberal defenders of free speech. Even if he organises a peaceful march, the State will ignore him, and the media will abuse him, for they do not believe he has the right to be offended.

    The only person up until now who has figured out that Hindus can also use existing laws in their favour is Subramanian Swamy, the maverick economist and former minister. He used legal arguments earlier to nix the destruction of the Rama Setu; more recently, in a precedent-setting case, he managed to prevent the grasping State from grabbing yet another Hindu temple, the Chidambaram Nataraja temple, from the Dikshitar community.

    And now comes Dina Nath Batra with his fully democratic victory in the Doniger case. The only lesson that Hindus need to take away is that they, too, are protected under the ‘hurt sentiments’ law and that they can use it to punish those who offend them.

    I hope many more will now use the full force of the law to bring culprits to heel. No need to hang your heads in shame even if soi-disant intellectuals say you must, as you have simply used civilised, democratic dissent.
    – Rajeev Srinivasan

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