HAF Reacts as Penguin Waddles Away from Doniger
San Francisco, CA (February 13, 2014) -- In light of a multitude of inquiries with regard to Penguin India's decision to withdraw controversial scholar, Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) issues the following statement.
HAF is against censorship or the banning of books in any country or fora. In fact, we have consistently held that Doniger's many published works are profoundly problematic based on their selective use of facts and questionable methodology, but the preferred course of action is to challenge and debate, provide rebuttals, and publish accounts of Hinduism and its history that present the deep insight and emic perspectives so obviously lacking in Doniger's work.
This particular case, however, is not one of banning, but the result of a legal, out-of-court settlement, which Penguin books entered into willingly with Delhi-based Shiksha Bachao Andolan ("The Save Education Movement"). In response to a lawsuit brought only four years ago under the Indian Penal Code, whose Section 295A forbids speech which "deliberately and maliciously inflames religious sentiment," Penguin appears to have calculated that the liability for errors and excessive editorial liberties taken by Doniger outweigh the potential harm its reputation may sustain by surrendering rather than championing free speech.
HAF's Director of Education, Murali Balaji, has an excellent explanation of the HAF position on this issue. Like many Hindus, lay scholars, and even academics, we find The Hindus to be atonal, inaccurate, and non-reflective of actual Hindu practice when it was first published. HAF's Aseem Shukla's dialogue with Wendy Doniger on the Washington Post from 2010 highlights the book's many factual and interpretive issues.
As in her prior work, Doniger seems to revel in the most exotic aspects of the religion practiced by the fewest adherents and cast aspersions at those practiced by a majority or plurality, a methodology that was most famously exposed when comparing the chapter she prepared for Microsoft Encarta on Hinduism to those prepared for other religions. Her tendency to cite selectively or (charitably) to misremember facts is also on display in her official statement regarding the ban:
They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece-the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.
As she should know, the law (passed in 1860) is not specific to Hindus and has been used by all religious communities to shut down criticism or even mild dissent from dogma. The only difference is that the name-calling and outcry against the "fundamentalists" of other religious communities calling for bans has been relatively silent, such as when India banned Taslima Nasrin's work for offending Muslims or when the Da Vinci Code was pulled for offending Christians.
Even a controversial scholar like Doniger has the right to be heard, but, just as the rest of us in medicine, law, business, or the sciences face both short-term and long-term repercussions of varying severity for misstatements of facts or liberty taken in editorializing or interpreting facts, academics like her need to introspect as to their commitment to balancing academic freedom with academic integrity and mutual respect.