The textbook vigilante: Meet the man who got Doniger’s book on Hinduism withdrawn
Succumbing to pressure from the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti – an organisation founded by Batra – Penguin agreed not only to stop publishing, distributing and selling Doniger’s book in India, but to also destroy all existing copies in stock.
The Samiti’s main grouse is that Doniger interprets Hinduism through a highly sexual lens. “This filth will no longer be sold, but for now, we have only won the battle, not the war,” said Batra. Next week, he plans to file a case in the Delhi High Court against another book by Doniger, 'On Hinduism', published by Aleph Book Company last year. “That book, too, has a lot of objectionable content.”
Although the Samiti is just six years old, Doniger is not Batra’s first target. Five years ago, the organisation took issue with an essay by eminent scholar AK Ramanujan, titled ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, which was included in Delhi University’s history syllabus. The essay explored different tellings of the Ramayana and dismissed the idea of an original version. In October 2011, the university’s academic council dropped the essay from the syllabus.
Before that, Batra had made headlines in 2001, when he edited a book titled ‘The Enemies of Indianisation: The Children of Marx, Macaulay and Madrasa’, which included a chapter on 41 “distorted facts” in the CBSE textbooks certified by the National Council of Educational Research and Training.
At the time, Batra was the general secretary of Vidya Bharati, the education wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as well as a key advisor to the Bharatiya Janata Party's Murli Manohar Joshi, who was the union Human Resources Development minister at the time. Backed by Batra, Joshi pushed the NCERT to make a number of changes and deletions in its textbooks.
In each case – Doniger’s book, Ramanujan’s essay and the NCERT textbooks – Batra’s protests were premised on the old argument that they “hurt religious sentiments”. But Batra, who is still listed as a senior member on the RSS’s Vidya Bharati website, does not like to overtly associate his Shiksha Bachao Andolan with any Hindutva project.
“We stand for alternative forms of education to bring about a change in the country,” said Batra. “UNESCO has said that education should be related to a country’s culture, but in India, what we teach children has no connection to bhartiyata" or Indianness.
For Batra, “alternative education” implies stringing different subjects and disciplines together with the common thread of nationalism: economics should include the study of Chanakya, mathematics should include Vedic maths and so on. “We are for modernity, but we are against Westernisation,” Batra said. “Texts should be written in a way that will make children proud of India.”
So why ban Doniger's book, which isn't for children nor part of any syllabus? “The book would still be on the shelves of libraries," said Batra. "People would still be able to read them. If something hurts people’s sentiments, it is important to ban it. Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to selectively talk about sexual references in religious texts.”
Batra has a long history of demanding curbs on free expression. In a 2001 interview with Outlook magazine, he defended censoring NCERT textbooks. "Jesus Christ was a najayaz (illegitimate) child of Mary but in Europe they don't teach that," he said. "Instead, they call her Mother Mary and say she is a virgin.”