After a long legal battle, Penguin Books India has agreed to remove a book about Hinduism from circulation in India, and to destroy all copies of book in the country, a decision that drew immediate criticism from writers and literary groups around the world.
The Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a civil suit against Penguin Books India in 2011, claiming that Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History," disparaged Hinduism and was guilty of "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings."
Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, said in a statement released by PEN Delhi that she lamented her publisher's decision to settle the suit with the group.
"I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate," Doniger said. "And as a publisher's daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped."
In The Times of India on Thursday, writer Arundhati Roy wrote a scathing, open letter to Penguin Books India, which also happens to publish her own books.
"There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay," Roy wrote. "Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world. ... And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement. Why?"
Several other authors, including novelist Hari Kunzru and historian William Dalrymple, spoke out in The Guardian, with Kunzru saying that the Hindu "far right ... has become expert in wielding the weapon of [religious] offence to silence critics."
In the United States, the National Book Critics Circle urged Penguin Books India to reconsider its "deplorable decision," calling it "a de facto act of self-censorship that will only contribute to a further rolling back of free speech in India." The NBCC honored "The Hindus" by naming it a finalist for its nonfiction prize in 2009.
Doniger herself was more diplomatic. She said she did not "blame" Penguin. "Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book," she said.
In an interview with PRI, Doniger said that the campaign of Hindu fundamentalists to attack the book has largely backfired. The controversy helped make the book a bestseller in Indian. And even before the decision by Penguin Books India, digital PDF copies of the book were circulating widely in the country, ensuring people in India will continue to read it, even if they can no longer find it in bookstores.