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.
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