What does it mean to ban a book in 2014?

Hurt brigades are fighting a losing battle against technology that is pushing liberalism

abhishek-choudhary

Abhishek Choudhary | February 13, 2014



By now it’s too familiar a story to be surprising: a writer writes a book (often with years of slogging and painstaking research); someone—an individual, but often an individual claiming to represent a certain community—finds something about the book offensive or harmful (morally, sexually, politically, religiously, financially, and pretty much in any other manner). The hurt brigade takes the writer and the publisher to the court. The book gets banned: the exact legal clause could vary but, basically, bookshops stop selling, or even showcasing, that book.

So this time it’s Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, a fat scholarly book that credited the contribution of women, oppressed castes and others (including animals) to Hinduism, entities that often find no place in a sanitized upper caste storytelling of this ancient religion. In 2011, a retired school principal named Dinanath Batra, who felt Doniger’s approach to Hinduism was “jaundiced”, filed a civil lawsuit in Saket district court against the author and the publisher, Penguin India. Ironically, or may be not so ironically, the book-cover carries endorsements by well-known Indian writers who have written on religion: Sudhir Kakkar, Gurucharan Das, Pankaj Mishra.      

On February 10, news spread in the social media that Penguin India had agreed to withdraw all published copies (and to destroy all remaining copies) of this critically acclaimed book after an out-of-court settlement between Penguin India and Batra’s NGO, Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti.

Penguin India is yet to issue any clarification on what forced the publishing giant to suddenly submit to the whims of a virtually unknown group of men and women with their simple-minded, puritanical interpretation of the book (and who threatened violence if their demands were not met). Or why Penguin India didn’t take the matter to a higher court: after all, it wasn’t just about a book, but against a culture of book bans.

Only two weeks ago, another book met a similar fate: The Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava. This book, to put it very shortly, told the story of how the former aviation minister, Praful Patel, meticulously planned and swiftly executed the demise of the government-run Air India. In this case, too, the publisher, Bloomsbury India, chickened out: "If the contents of the book have caused any embarrassment to Mr Patel, we sincerely regret... it was never our intention to discredit him in any manner."

Bloomsbury didn’t think it important to discuss the matter with Bhargava before issuing the apology. Bhargava said "everything stated in the book is true, based on documents", and that he will have the book reprinted "either on my own or through a new publisher".

There are others, too: two years ago it was Siddharth Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, which carried a profile of IIPM head Arindam Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri didn’t just file a suit against Deb, publisher Penguin India, and The Caravan magazine that carried an excerpt, he went on sue even Google India whose cache contained the relevant chapter.

Unfortunately, in all these cases, the bullies, acting as the hurt party, have met with a common failure: anyone who wants to read either of these books has been able to find one: the e-book of The Hindus can be easily downloaded from one of the many blogs (even from Facebook and Twitter links); everyone who wants to read the rather brilliant profile of Arindam Chaudhuri in Deb’s book can find a copy on the web (in fact, some pages can be read on Amazon, too); as for Bhargava, he has himself promised to release the e-book in the next few weeks.

Banning a book could have many benefits: political and religious gains, masochism, ego boost, etcetera etcetera. But in 2014—not very far from a time when a Kindle containing any thousand e-books of one’s choice would be cheaper than a single print copy—only the people least in tune with technological changes on planet earth would ban a book thinking no one would be able to procure a copy. No one can stop, as the great political economist Joseph Schumpeter once said, the “perennial gale of creative destruction”.

My advice for the retired school principal is, therefore, hopelessly old and simple: Rather than banning The Hindus, why don’t you, beloved sir, write a book—preferably a better book—that would expose the hypocrisies, biases and the “jaundiced” approach of Wendy Doniger? Let the real Hindu in you grab the opportunity of a lifetime.

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