Free Expression

Doniger considered sending copies of 'The Hindus' to India in soap boxes

'I think I particularly annoyed him because I’m a woman and he thinks I write about nothing but sex,' American professor says about Dinanath Batra.

In the months after Penguin agreed to stop selling Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in February, the University of Chicago professor and her publisher considered a number of options for getting it back in the hands of Indian readers.

“My favorite was to smuggle in 2,000 copies in boxes marked soap,” she told Scroll.in following a speech at Columbia University in New York City on Wednesday, the first time in months she has publicly discussed the controversy surrounding her book.

That idea was rejected, but the professor said she regularly emails a PDF of The Hindus to anyone from India who asks for one, despite her publishers urging her not to.

It’s one of the ways Doniger has tried to fight back against Dinanath Batra,  of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, whose lawsuit convinced Penguin to cease publication of the book.

Batra and his supporters say her book is offensive to Hindus because it includes sexualised depictions of Hindu gods. But Doniger believes the episode is part of a growing trend of censorship in India.

No historical precedent

“In the Indian tradition, there was no idea of censure, of people saying, ‘You can’t say what you believe,’” Doniger said. “There are no precedents for that historically.”

She added, “Catholics, sure, they burned books…Indians never burned books. This is a bad, new thing for India.”

At her speech in New York on October 1, Doniger said she wanted to correct the record, noting that her book was never banned or pulped, as some media suggested. Instead, Penguin agreed to stop publishing it before Batra’s lawsuit went to court. Not a single book was pulped, she said, because the remaining copies were bought up so quickly.

Doniger spoke just a few days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to New York, where he received an enthusiastic welcome from many – but not all – Indian-Americans.

“Diasporas are always conservative,” said Doniger. “It’s a small provincial community, the people who had enough money to move to America, and they’re cut off from the rest of India. They circle their wagons, hold onto a few old ideas and don’t let go.”

She added, “I wasn’t surprised that they welcomed Modi. If he can give people jobs, they don’t care about his policy on human rights.”

But she said it was too early to draw conclusions about Modi’s administration.

“He may change,” Doniger said. “It’s early days, he’s just come to office a few months ago.”

She’s hoping to see the blasphemy law under which she was sued – 295A – modified from a criminal penalty, with the threat of jail time for authors and publishers, to a civil penalty.  If that happened, “publishers would be less frightened about publishing books that make people mad”, Doniger said.

But for now, since it’s possible that people like Batra will bring suits against them that will involve jail time, “they are hesitating to take on controversial books”, Doniger said.

This has led to a “prevailing mood” of self-censorship among Indian publishers, she said, even those who hadn’t been threatened with a Batra lawsuit.

Saffronisation of education

Doniger also critiqued the “saffronisation of education” in India and the influence Batra, who she called a “fanatical, semiliterate old man,” has on textbooks in Gujarat.

“I think I particularly annoyed him because I’m a woman and he thinks I write about nothing but sex,” she said.

She added, “I don’t even write about sex all that much. I write about sex sometimes.” For instance, over the next two weeks, Doniger is giving a series of lectures at Yale on “the politics of sexuality in ancient India” and the “sceptical tradition” in historical Indian writings.

She said she wouldn’t be going back to India anytime soon because of uncertainty about her legal status. Because she didn’t respond to the summons in Batra’s suit, it’s possible that she could still be charged with contempt of court, Doniger said.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable anyway because of the way India is right now," she siad. "It would be a frightening place for me. I have a lot of friends in India, but I don’t want to go back right now. Maybe someday.”

Boosting sales

Could The Hindus be printed in India in the future?

“Lots of people have offered to republish The Hindus,” despite the threat of lawsuits, she said. “It’s always a possibility.”

Ironically, she said, as the book had already been in print for four years before Penguin agreed to stop selling it, “it would have gone out of print in time if this fuss hadn’t been made.”

But Batra’s lawsuit boosted the sales of all of her books in India.

“If Batra’s aim was to stop people from reading my books, his plan has certainly backfired,” Doniger said.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.