In February of this year, after a long career of relative obscurity in the ivory tower, I suddenly became notorious.1 In 2010, Penguin India had published a book of mine, The Hindus: An Alternative History, which won two awards in India: in 2012, the Ramnath Goenka Award,2 and in 2013, the Colonel James Tod Award.3 But within months of its publication in India, a then-eighty-one-year-old retired headmaster named Dina Nath Batra, a proud member of the far-right organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had brought the first of a series of civil and criminal actions against the book, arguing that it violated Article 295a of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” of citizens.
After fighting the case for four years, Penguin India, which had recently merged with Bertelsmann, abandoned the lawsuit, agreeing to cease publishing the book. (It also agreed to pulp all remaining copies, but—as it turned out—not a single book was destroyed; all extant copies were quickly bought up from the bookstores.) When Penguin told me it was all over, I thought it was all over, and was grateful for the long run we’d had.
There wasn’t anything special about my book; Batra had been attacking other books for some time. But what was special, and unexpected, was the volume and intensity and duration of the outcry in reaction to Penguin’s action: other authors withdrew their books from Penguin, defying it to pulp them, too; people accused the publishers of cowardice for giving up without even taking the case to court, in contrast with their former courage in successfully (and at very great expense) defending Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. One Bangalore law firm issued a legal notice suggesting that the Penguin logo be changed from a penguin to a chicken.
Some writers argued that Penguin could have won the case had it seen it through to the end. After all, these accusers said, how can you prove malicious intent in a book? Alas, in some courts it could be very easy. To satisfy the terms of Indian law, statements in the book in question need merely be expected “to outrage religious feelings.” If you got the wrong judge—and India is a place where the Supreme Court has recently reinstated a law criminalizing homosexuality—you’d be convicted just for publishing a statement that you had good reason to believe might well offend someone. It’s hard to imagine how you could write about any subject as sensitive as religion or history…
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