Numerous Hindus come across as jubilant and triumphant now that they, or some of them, have managed to pressure Penguin books into agreeing to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: an Alternative History and destroy its stock. I am not that happy about it. And I agree with Wendy that the real villain of the piece is Art. 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits insulting religious communities and was successfully invoked by Dina Nath Batra to threaten the publishing-house with a judicial condemnation.

Art. 295A was never the doing of Hindu society. It was imposed by the British on the Hindus in order to shield Islam from criticism. The reason for its enactment was the murder of Pandit Lekhram in 1897 by a Muslim because Lekhram had written a book criticizing Islam. While the British authorities sentenced the murderer, they also sided with him by retro-actively and posthumously punishing Lekhram.

Though originally and for a long time serving to shield Islam, Hindus gradually discovered that they too could use the religiously neutral language of this Article to their seeming advantage. Christians as well have invoked it, e.g. to ban Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. This creates a sickening atmosphere of a pervasive touch-me-not-ism, with every community outdoing the other in being more susceptible to having its sentiments hurt.

American academics have a moral right to deplore this law, on condition that they have spoken out against it on the occasion of earlier conspicuous incidents of book-banning. Where was Wendy when Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was banned? Not knowing her entire record, I leave it to her to provide the answer. At any rate, many Indian secularists, who mostly enjoy the support of those American academics, supported the ban, which was decreed by a self-declared secular Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) and ruling party (Congress).

I remember Vijay Prashad and Biju Mathew calling for a denial of any platform to myself, and big professors like Michael Witzel and Robert Zydenbos seconding this call; but I don’t remember Wendy Doniger coming out in my support. I was thrown off the RISA list by Deepak Sharma in violation of the list’s own charter, and where was prominent member Wendy Doniger then? In most cases, the people clamouring “freedom of expression” on this occasion are very selective in their love of freedom, which they would gladly throw overboard as soon as it concerns the expression of an opinion less dear to them. I have the impression that Wendy herself is in this category too, but she may convince us otherwise by showing off her earlier acts of solidarity with besieged writers.

For the Hindus, this is a Pyrrhic victory. The publicity they gain worldwide is entirely negative, and it corroborates their image as authoritarian and intolerant. They also admit that they are unable to fight back with arguments. To an extent this is simply true, there is no level playing field, and the American academics including Wendy herself have done their best never to give the Hindus a fair hearing. On the other hand, this power equation is the Hindus’ own doing. They have never invested in scholarship, and so they have to take umbrage behind a threatened judicial verdict now that they have the chance.

Individual Hindus who don’t enjoy their enemies’ institutional support have indeed presented strong argumentative cases: Arun Shourie, Rajiv Malhotra, Meenakshi Jain. A list of the numerous errors in Wendy’s book has been compiled by Vishal Agarwal, an Indo-American engineer writing in his spare time. Most of all, he has shown how her book’s treatment of Hinduism is unconscientious and flippant to a degree that would never be accepted from a professor of her rank for more established religions. But this is only a small counterforce against the massive anti-Hindu propaganda put out under the guise of scholarship by “Wendy’s children”. Here, Hindus only pay the price for their self-proclaimed leaders’ non-performance during the last decades.

Building a scholarly challenge to the present academic consensus is a long-term project that admits of no shortcuts. By going to court and twisting Penguin’s arm, Hindus think they have scored a clever victory. I think they have only demeaned Hinduism.

But the taste of victory has become so unusual for Hindus that even many people who I thought knew better, have jubilated over this book withdrawal. And of course, Art. 295A may be a bad thing, but as long as it is on the statute books, it should count for Hindus as much as for Muslims and Christians. But American Indologists including Wendy Doniger have always condoned religious discrimination on condition that Hindus are at the receiving end, so they may not applaud this plea of mine for even-handedness.

Briefly: while I do not support this act of book-burning, I don’t think American India-watchers are really entitled to their much-publicized indignation.

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Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.