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Banned book: Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India Oxford University Press, 2003
Status: Maharashtra cabinet takes decision to ban the book on January 14, 2004
The whole idea of censorship and burning (or pulping) of books is beginning to seem rather quaint. One is distressed to see Penguin (India) destroying perfectly good copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus in order to assuage the hurt feelings of sensitive defenders of some would-be ancient Hinduism from modernist critique.
But of course, Penguin (USA) can quickly replace them, even in India, as the author herself recently noted. Besides, if the intention of this legal action was the suppression of the book, she also said, it backfired, since “they are now selling like hot cakes”. Fairly soon, of course, people everywhere will be downloading any book they like in digital form.
What is distressing is the whole sentiment behind the idea of banning books. A scholar like Doniger, who has spent her whole life studying Sanskrit and writing lively books intended to provoke an interest in Hindu literature and thought, nowadays finds herself denigrated by a cadre of defensive apologists who feel they must guard against anything they deem to be a slight to their tradition. Given that Indian intellectual life for the last 2,500 years has been characterised by extraordinary openness, rigour and self-criticism, exactly what has produced this new narrowness and thin-skinned sensitivity?
When my book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (OUP, 2003) was banned, I was amazed at the reaction, and have reflected on the increasing tendency for certain Hindus to feel the need to police the discourse surrounding Hinduism. Some Hindus accuse Western scholars of having a hidden agenda of promoting Christianity, but the critical study of religious texts was first developed by scholars applying their findings to Christianity. Conservative Christians have often opposed Biblical scholars for less than pious readings of their scriptures, but a scholar like Wendy Doniger is hardly one to be secretly criticising Hinduism in order to defend Christianity. Anyone who has read her more comparative works will see that she applies the same standards of rigorous critical reading to all religious texts.
What seems to be most in need of analysis is the way the voices of scholars representing the elite academic institutions, whether the University of Chicago or the Jawaharlal Nehru University, are resented by those whose voices are not amplified to the same degree. Populist demagoguery and calls for book-banning succeed when people have no access to the education that provides a way to step up to the microphone. Feeling left out of the conversation, it is no wonder they shout, even to the point of shouting down and trying to silence their opponents. Of course, many of those inciting the shouting are neither oppressed nor voiceless. They may even be well-educated (in technical if not humanistic disciplines) and privileged. Their motivations may be deeper anxieties about modernity, or gender, or they may simply be cynical in using hot button issues to advance their own interests and power.
So while I will always vigorously oppose anyone who calls for censorship and book banning, I can sometimes appreciate the resentment that produces such appeals. For descendants of the Enlightenment, freedom of speech may be a sacred right, but it only makes sense in the context of social equality. The sort of equality that depends on education cannot, however, be advanced in a society that stifles free expression and access to ideas, popular and unpopular.