Op-ed: Wendy Doniger failed most by her publisher

New Delhi (Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

What exactly is the objection to Wendy Doniger's The Hindus? The book is engaging but could well be said to suffer from Doniger's tendency to overly exoticise, eroticise and put a psycho-sexual twist to Hindu tradition. That aside, this is both Doniger's Big Fat Book on India as well as her argument with the Hindu right. The Hindu right, like Hinduism itself, has multiple narratives. It can be a serious political intervention; it can also be a loony fringe shooting off rhetorical and poorly researched emails. Doniger is not interested in telling the difference, and this remains one of several shortcomings in her book.

Does it merit the book being pulped? Not at all. It is telling that The Hindus has been withdrawn and made a non-book not by mob violence or a court order or a government decision - but by a publisher who ran away from a long legal battle. In that sense, it is no different from Jitendra Bhargava's book on Air India, withdrawn by another publisher after Praful Patel, former civil aviation minister, threatened to sue. (Disturbed about India's worsening political climate: Wendy Doniger after row over her book)

This is particularly disconcerting because many suspect India is one long and determined legal battle away from ending the epidemic of intolerance that began with the ban on Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1988. If a publisher were to stand up for the right to free expression and agree to fight it out in court right up to the Supreme Court, it would send a message and set a precedent. Unfortunately, if the publisher itself takes the line of least resistance, then the only non-fiction that will be seen as safe enough to release in India will be bland hagiography.

Like in so much else, it would be appropriate to ask how the Mahatma would have acted when faced with such questions. In his book Going Native (2011), a study of Gandhi's engagement with Western women, the writer Thomas Weber refers to how the great man responded to the criticism of Katherine Mayo's Mother India, which pointed out but also overstated India's social and physical ills and argued the British Raj had saved India from itself.

Far from angering him, Mayo's book triggered Gandhi into action. He buried himself deep into its ugly and hostile narrative rather than ask people to not read it, much less ban it.

"Throughout his celebrated Salt March ... and later campaigns," writes Weber, "the focus was not merely on an India free from the British, but a certain sort of India - one that was free from the blemishes pointed out in Mother India... The amount of energy he spent on commenting on the book, even years later, shows an almost obsessive relationship with Katherine Mayo and Mother India."

That was a time of sense and sensibility. Now, alas, there is only pride and prejudice.

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Story First Published: February 12, 2014 09:56 IST

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