Business News/ Opinion / The appeasement of the fringe Hindu

The decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, from circulation is disturbing on so many levels that one could write a book-length monograph on this latest episode of scholarship surrendering to censorship.

First, there is the curious phenomenon where the country’s law and order machinery and criminal justice system, which are inefficient at best, and dysfunctional at worst, suddenly spring to life and become a model of responsiveness as they strive to protect the offence-taker from the offence-giver. There is no getting away from it: in India, the law and the state favour and incentivise offence-taking.

The second dimension is how censorship seems to have achieved full legitimacy as a form of cultural—and even literary and film—criticism. Arbitrary censorship could come about either through the now predictable route of offence-taking followed by intimidation via threat of physical violence, vandalism, etc., or offence-taking followed by intimidation via the judicial system. Either way, the end result is the same: censorship through the backdoor.

The out-of-court settlement is the latest and most insidious version of this phenomenon, taking it to a whole new low by privatizing censorship. Penguin’s out-of-court agreement to pulp Doniger’s book comes barely a month after Bloomsbury’s withdrawal of Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India, following an out-of-court settlement with former aviation minister Praful Patel.

Doniger’s book is one in a long line of cultural products—books, paintings, films, photographs, concerts—that have, in recent years, been forced off the public stage by elements claiming to be offended. We may console ourselves by thinking, oh well, thank god for the Internet—we can still at least download a withdrawn book or read it on Kindle. But that would be a foolhardy view to take. Accessibility is not the only, or even the primary, reason why censorship is such a big deal.

The real issue, as always, is political, to do with the exercise of power, to do with demonstrating dominance. It is far easier to make a display of political power in the symbolic rather than in the substantive domain. That is why you will rarely find fringe Hindu groups protesting because Hindu farmers are committing suicide or because Hindu children are suffering from malnutrition, both of which are facts in today’s India. You will find Muslim fundamentalist groups threatening violence over the visit of a Salman Rushdie or the words of a Taslima Nasreen but you will not find them holding a dharna for the implementation of the Sachar committee report. And Dalit political leaders will suddenly appear all-powerful and implacable when it comes to a matter of some insult, real or perceived, to a Dalit icon or statue or the Dalit community as a whole, but they do not often display the same sagacity or stamina when it comes to securing justice for Dalit victims of upper-caste violence.

The symbolic economy works in mysterious ways, but it works well. The reason why offence-taking and the ostensible appeasement of the offence-taker is such a vibrant industry in India today is because the investment required is zero—you don’t even need brains—but the returns are massive. There was only one way Dina Nath Batra and his NGO were going to get a few crore rupees worth of free publicity, and that was by getting offended.

But there is another dimension to all this—to, specifically, the censorship of Doniger’s book—that is even more disturbing. And that has to do with the reason why it was deemed, by certain elements, absolutely vital to have The Hindus: An Alternative History out of circulation.

The reason is that Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus strikes a body blow at the very heart of the Hindutva ideology and project. It does so by demonstrating brilliantly—and not in the dry, difficult prose of a scholar addressing other scholars but in the accessible language of a friend talking to other friends—that Hinduism as a monolithic entity was a recent, and largely post-colonial, construct.

Before the advent of the British, there flourished in the subcontinent several faiths, and several factions of each of those faiths, all of which had in common a symbolic idiom, iconography and mythology. An external observer might, looking at their similarities, lump them together as “Hindu". But there had never existed in history a singular, institutionalized Hindu religion the way, say, Islam or Christianity have existed for most of their history. Doniger’s book is by no means the first to make this argument—nor is it even the book’s main argument—but no other work in recent memory makes this point so effortlessly, on such a scale, and with such panache, almost as if it was something too obvious from all the evidence she has collated in her book to even mention.

Constructing a singular, homogenous Hindu faith is a political project that is currently under the management control of the Hindu right. Locating this project in history, and exposing its flawed assumptions about Hinduism through a rigorously documented and anthropologically grounded narrative would take the Brahminical, Sanskritic, monotheistic, mono-cultural, prudish, claustrophobic and outright boring air out of the weird, saffron-coloured inflated balloon that the Hindu right is floating right now and hopes will be mistaken by everyone for Hinduism or whatever the term “Hinduism" is supposed to denote.

It is thus hardly surprising that these elements are desperate to have Doniger’s book surgically excised from the Indian cultural space, for only then could it become secure as a Hindu space.

The withdrawal of Doniger’s book, therefore, is not just an instance of liberal surrender but it is also one of Hindu surrender—because the more and more this happens, the only voices left that could be heard speaking on behalf of Hindus (assuming such speech were necessary at all) would be from the Hindutva fringe. There is a well known name for this process: “Talibanization".

Doniger’s book was withdrawn at the insistence of offence-takers who claimed to be speaking on behalf of “millions of Hindus". Who appointed them as the spokespersons for millions of Hindus is not mentioned anywhere in their petition. But evidently, the Hindu Taliban is back in favour in officially secular India. Their days as a “fringe element" are coming to an end.

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Updated: 13 Feb 2014, 04:10 PM IST
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