Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Penguin India Faces Growing Protests Over Withdrawal of Hinduism History

by Alison Flood)

Protest in 2010, part of the campaign to ban Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus, which last week prompted Penguin to withdraw the book from circulation in India. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/EPA

Two authors have written to Penguin demanding that their books be pulped in protest at the publisher's removal of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus from circulation in India, while two readers have served a legal notice on the publisher claiming it is in "serious breach" of their rights.

The backlash over Penguin's move last week has been huge, with major literary figures lining up to condemn the withdrawal of The Hindus from India. Penguin took the decision following a four-year legal battle with a Hindu nationalist group which claimed Doniger's well-reviewed tome violated the Indian penal code - which prevents religious insult - as it "hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus".

Now the Penguin authors Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan have written to the publisher asking for their books to be withdrawn and pulped. "[We] have asked Penguin to pulp our books and revert copyright so we can deal with any would-be bullies on our own terms," said Varadarajan on Twitter.

"As an author, I no longer have the confidence that Penguin will stand by my book, Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy – published by you in 2002 – in the event that some group or individual should decide to demand that it be withdrawn because they feel it violates 295 (Section of the Indian Penal Code)," wrote Varadarajan in an email to Penguin cited by the Times of India. "Accordingly, I would be grateful if our contract is cancelled, all remaining copies of my book with you are pulped, and copyright for the book is reverted to me so that I may freely distribute it electronically without the fear of any future, arbitrary withdrawal by Penguin in the face of pressure from the sort of intellectual bullies who have managed to have their way with Prof Doniger's book."

"In order to register my protest, I demand that my two books, published by you, be withdrawn and pulped," wrote Sharma. "If my request is overlooked or dismissed citing arguments from the contract I have signed with Penguin, I will, then, resort to legal recourse, especially since I believe that my books published by you are grave threats to Indian law as interpreted by you and to the safety of your colleagues and employees."

Meanwhile two readers, describing themselves as "avid bibliophiles", have issued a legal notice to Penguin claiming its move is "in serious breach of the rights of readers" and calling on the publisher to "immediately" recommence distribution of The Hindus, or give up copyright in the book.

"While they may both be birds, there is a world of difference between a Penguin and a chicken and the last time my clients checked, the penguin had not changed his feathers in the natural world," runs the notice, which was served by Lawrence Liang, a lawyer and writer at the Alternative Law Forum, a group of human rights lawyers based in Bangalore.

The publisher, claims the notice, is "discriminating between different readers by conveniently choosing to acknowledge the claims and allegations of one particular class of readers who claim that their religious sentiments have been hurt by this book while ignoring the rights of many others who have found the book to be informative, enjoyable and insightful".

"My clients as readers believe that the ability to read any book, undisturbed by busybodies, is a sacred right and while others may choose to disagree with the book they are free to register their protest in any constitutional manner without disturbing my clients' right to be left alone with their books," runs the notice. "If we were to ban all books that offend our delicate sentiments, then we would be left with precious little (all comedies would certainly have to go) and you would have to seriously consider an alternative business – perhaps printing happily safe greeting anniversary cards."

Liang told the Guardian that the notice was "simultaneously serious but also performative since we were angry and troubled by their withdrawal of the book through a private agreement".

"I doubt if we will hear back from them, or that they will even relinquish their copyright over the book for India, but in terms of public pressure it is at least a starting point," he said.

Penguin India would not comment on the issue. Last week it issued a statement in response to the uproar, in which it blamed the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, for the withdrawal of The Hindus.

"Penguin Books India believes, and has always believed, in every individual's right to freedom of thought and expression," said Penguin last week. "At the same time, a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can."

Penguin said Indian laws would "make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law", describing the situation as "an issue of great significance not just for the protection of creative freedoms in India but also for the defence of fundamental human rights".

James Tennant, PEN International's literary manager, said that The Hindus "should never have been withdrawn from circulation", and that the "decision should not have been made on behalf of India's reading public, regardless of political pressure or fear of retribution".