Western media has castigated Hindus for allegedly trampling free speech after Penguin India voluntarily withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus. So, let me take the self-righteous Westerners for a stroll down the memory lane. In 2009, India’s powerful Christian Church had the movie Angels and Demons censored. Earlier, the movie Da Vinci Code was banned for several weeks in many Indian states. The Church called for the bans alleging that these movies threatened Christian beliefs.
In 2013, the Church claimed that a statue of Jesus in Mumbai shed tears. It ran a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign to distribute ‘holy tears’ to the gullible until the Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku unexpectedly spoiled the party. ‘Holy tears’ turned out to be sewage water from a nearby gutter which had risen by capillary action anddripped through a hole in the eye of the statue. The Church wasn’t amused. It made attempts to have Edamaruku arrested for blasphemy. Edamaruku fled to Europe to evade arrest. In all of these cases, Indian government and judiciary had acted quickly to fulfill the unreasonable Christian demands to suppress free speech within days.
Western media reacted to these brazen acts of suppression of free speechby observing a deafening silence.
In 2011, a cabal of leftist academics at Harvard successfully led a campaign to cancel the classes of the visiting faculty Subramanian Swamy. The provocation? In an op-ed he wrote, Swamy had insisted that India’s Muslims recognize their Hindu ancestry as a precondition to vote in the elections. No further debate was necessary. It was imperative to resort to shock and awe tactics to make him pay the price for speaking freely. He was kicked out of Harvard. The newspaper removed the online article. His house was vandalized. This is not the only occasion when the left resorted to censorship as the means to deal with a discordant opinion.
American leftists campaigned to deny platform to Koenraad Elst, the Belgian scholar with known pro-Hindu leanings. Prominent academics such as Harvard’s Michael Witzel supported the campaign. Elst was also expelled from the academic religious studies list, RISA-L, in violation of list rules. Censorship didn’t bother Wendy Doniger, a prominent member of RISA-L, so long as it was only used against her ideological opponents.
Western media wasn’t anguished by these bullying acts of censorship either.
Hindus usually tolerate criticism and ridicule of their religious beliefs. Indian movies regularly mock Hindu beliefs and get away with it. Even works authored with the sole intent of ridiculing Hindu divinities are sometimes prescribed reading in Indian colleges. An example is the Tamil work Ravana Kaviyam. Authored by an anti-Hindu activist, it inverts the story of the Ramayana to caricature the Hindu divine protagonist Rama. Demagogues such as Kancha Ilaiah, author of Why I am not a Hindu, freely publish and distribute their books. In contrast, media houses in India are afraid to publish even a reasonable criticism of Christianity or Islam.
Hindus sometimes wonder whether tolerance and respect for free speech is a virtue when they see India’s Christians and Western leftists resort to censorship with impunity. A Hindu is sometimes tempted to imitate the behavior of these Christians and leftists that have an enviable track record of successfully censoring discordant free speech. A Hindu litigant was thus tempted to file a lawsuit against Doniger’s The Hindus. However, the courts, which had promptly censored or banned movies and books offensive to the Christians, didn’t show the same alacrity to please the Hindu litigant. The case dragged on for nearly four years. It is possible that the court may have even dismissed the lawsuit. There is no obvious reason for Penguin India to withdraw the book. Is there an ulterior motive behind the move?
In any case, this episode provided Westerners an opportunity to take upon themselves the burden of lecturing the truant Hindu about the virtues of free speech. The native fifth column eagerly shared the Westerner’s burden. Quite ironic considering that the road these hypocrites have travelled is littered with the vestiges of the works that were suppressed because they offended Christian or leftist sensibilities. It must be a cathartic experience to arrest a starving man for stealing a loaf of bread after one facilitates countless bank heists.