In his modest office above a school in Naraina Vihar in southwest Delhi, Dinanath Batra is wreathed in smiles. He’s been on the phone all morning, fielding questions from journalists. “I feel 84 years young”, he says. The reason lies on the chequered plastic cloth of the small coffee table in front of him—a mustard-yellow folder with the words “Penguin Book India Pvt. Ltd” printed boldly on the front and “Delhi Police” in the top left corner.
Batra is the subject of renewed interest because Penguin Book India chose to settle a civil suit he filed in 2011 against the publisher and the American scholar Wendy Doniger over The Hindus: An Alternative History, deliberately conceived (the title makes it clear) as a response to the prevailing narrative about Hinduism. “Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history”, Doniger notes in her preface, “is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism.”
This lengthy (over 700 pages), scholarly volume, more anvil than book, attracted protests in March 2010 in New York when it was nominated for a prestigious literary award. The protesters got in touch with Batra, he says, “to campaign to stop the book in India”. He read the book and “felt instantly angry”. Doniger, an academic of repute, was accused by Batra, and members of his group the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, of having a “hateful mentality”.
A pamphlet distributed by the group read: “On book’s jacket Lord Krishna is shown sitting on buttocks of a naked woman surrounded by other naked women just to outrage religious feelings of Hindus.” Doniger, 69 when she wrote the book, was accused of being “jaundiced...her approach is that of a woman hungry for sex”. The group is made up of volunteers: teachers, intellectuals, parents, essentially anyone devoted to a particular ideal of a culturally appropriate education. Batra wants to go further, to create a national non-governmental commission to examine and approve syllabi. He has already begun holding monthly meetings with proposed committee members.
Batra, a mild, affable man, tall and still upright, maintaining the posture of the school headmaster he once was, does not seem unhinged by rage now. But he is implacable in his belief that Doniger’s book is malevolent, has no place being read or discussed in India. In his petition to the court, The Hindus is described as “shallow, distorted...a haphazard presentation riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”.
Doniger herself is driven by a “Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light”, the petition said.
This is not the first time Batra has taken legal action against books with which he disagrees. When he retired after a 30-year career teaching Hindi and English first in Dera Bassi, Punjab, and later as a principal at a school in Kurukshetra, Haryana, Batra decided he would “make it a mission to see distortions removed from books taught to schoolchildren”.
He is an award-winning teacher and not someone who comes across as a crank in conversation. Prakash Sharma, spokesperson of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), describes Batra as a “senior and revered figure, who has always fought against elements that pollute the minds of our youth. In the case of Wendy Doniger, the VHP is following as Batraji leads. Anybody who insults our tradition and culture will not be tolerated.”
Batra says he is wedded to India’s core idea—unity in diversity. He insists that he does not discriminate between religions, that he will take on anyone who offends any religion. Indeed, he takes offence when his lawsuits are linked to the agenda of Hindutva. “Is it”, he asks, “Hindutva when we object to Bhagat Singh being described as a terrorist?” The first of Batra’s 10 lawsuits (by his own count) was against the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for up to 75 “objectionable passages” from various textbooks. It was, he says, the only battle he has lost, though he takes some solace in the fact “that those passages are being removed in newer editions”.
Perhaps, most notoriously, Batra was among those who moved the Delhi high court in 2008 to rule on dropping A.K. Ramanujan’s famous essay on the many, culturally specific versions of the Ramayana from Delhi University’s history syllabus. Upinder Singh, daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and a professor of history who helped design the course that included Ramanujan’s essay, recalled, in a phone interview, the venomous personal attacks she had to deal with at the time. “There was a very horrifying incident of violence in the history department,” she said, “but the violence is implicit as well as explicit. It is very demoralizing for scholars who have to deal with legal notices, lies, brow beating just for doing their work.”
It’s not just scholars that have to bear the brunt of Batra’s litigation. In 2010, he sent a legal notice to N. Ram, publisher of The Hindu, protesting a cover story in Frontline, a fortnightly magazine published by The Hindu Group, about Hindu terrorism. Batra and other complainants expressed a “strong objection to the usage of such derogatory, defamatory and insulting words (‘Hindutva terror’ and ‘Hindu terror’) used by you in connection with the great religion Hinduism which believes in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) and Ekam Sad Vipra Bahudha Vadyanti (all paths lead to the same God).” Not that Ram seemed too perturbed. Contacted on email, he said he didn’t even recall the legal notice. “Wonder what it was,” he wrote.
Professor Upinder Singh spoke of the energy of Batra and his fellow litigants, of the unpleasantness of having to deal with all the legalese.
Batra is committed to his causes, to seeing the national syllabus shaped according to his particular worldview. “We want a total change in the system”, he says, “we want ‘Indianness’ in the field of education”.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), he claims, prescribes that the education of each and every country be wedded to its culture. Patriotism and spiritualism are key to Batra’s vision of an Indian education. It all sounds innocuous enough until you realize that what he is proposing is the vetting by committee of all books, that only certain versions of history should be permitted, versions wiped clean and bloodless.
He is satisfied with Penguin’s decision to pulp copies of Doniger’s book. Why Penguin chose to settle isn’t known; the publisher refuses to comment. Emboldened, Batra says he now plans to go after another Doniger title, On Hinduism, published by Aleph. He is also planning to target another NCERT text and get it banned.
The textbook, by talking about the thousands killed in riots whether in Gujarat in 2002, Delhi in 1984, or when Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes, Batra says, foments rifts among impressionable students. And he knows just who to blame—Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav who, by advising the NCERT’s textbook development committee, “joins pseudo secularists in poisoning the adolescent mind”.
The rhetoric, whatever Batra says about his politics (refusing to reveal, as is his right, for which party he casts his vote), has a distinct tenor. “The good times are coming,” he says, “believe me”. It sounds like a threat.