Following the capitulation by Penguin Books India to a little-known Hindu group and their agreeing to pulp Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Delhi-based Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarti Sethi have sent a legal notice to Penguin Books India through their lawyer Advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum.
The notice, in its tone and tenor, almost mockingly mimics the original notice sent by Dina Nath Batra, the convener of Shiksha Bachao Andolan, to Doniger and Batra and describes Mr. Sengupta and Ms. Sethi as avid bibliophiles and ardent supporters of freedom of speech and expression who have in the past been admirers of Penguin Books. Mr Sengupta is described as "an artist and writer based in New Delhi with a longstanding interest in the comparative history of religions" and Ms Sethi as "an anthropologist with a deep interest in Hindu philosophy"
Pointing out that there is no court order that mandates such withdrawal, the 9-page, 30-paragraph long notice charges Penguin of being in "absolute contravention" of their "responsibilities as a publisher—to the author, the book and to the reading community upon whose goodwill your fortune and reputation depends."
Charging Penguin of "granting unauthorized groups and individuals the right to censor books," the notice goes on to say:
These groups and individuals believe that the threat of force is the best way to counter the written word and when publishers succumb to such pressures they perhaps need to rethink why they are in the book business at all. While they may both be birds, there is a world of difference between a Penguin and a chicken and the last time my clients checked, the penguin had not changed his feathers in the natural world.
That YOU NOTICEE have agreed to the aforementioned terms on the condition that Shri. Dinanath and the other busybodies shall withdraw all civil and criminal cases and complaints filed against you and the author is indicative that if not in the natural world, then at least in the publishing world the Penguin is mutating into a chicken. And furthermore by claiming that the aforementioned agreement has been entered into by YOU NOTICEE on your own ‘free will’, you insult one of philosophy’s favoured concepts.
The notice does not confine itself to the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book and notes that it is merely one of many instances in which Penguin has refused to back its authors:
Last year after the chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha obtained an injunction in the Tamil Nadu high court against the publication of a biography of her life published by Penguin, YOU NOTICEE chose not to appeal the matter and allowed the book to vanish instead. When the state— traditionally the great censoring machine— chooses to ban a book it has to provide reasons and is subject to challenge, but when Penguin chooses to kill its own books beyond the pale of the law it amounts to an extra judicial killing of books and authors.
After reminding Penguin of its historical legacy (reminding them that they had published D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover "and defended it legally, intellectually and morally. The judgment in this case helped redefine and extend permissible freedoms in the world of letters"), the notice goes to point out:
- That YOU NOTICEE have benefitted from the publication of Wendy Doniger’s "The Hindus" as evidenced by the fact that the book has sold very well and even gone into multiple print runs in the last four years. The fact that Wendy Doniger is a full time academic paid by a university enables her to write books which are then made available to YOU NOTICEE without any costs incurred on the research or labour and the only payment made to the author is a small royalty payment based on the sales of the book. When authors assign or license their rights to you they do so as a matter of trust that you will take it upon yourself to protect their interests as you would your own
- My clients have also taken note of your press statement in which you allege that Sec.295A of the Indian penal Code is choking free speech and making it difficult for publishers to continue with their work. While my clients are sympathetic and agree that we need to reform the laws we would like to assert that the only way in which that can happen is for publishers like yourself to take the legal battle to its logical end. Unlike an individual blogger who may not have the legal resources or bandwidth to be able to withstand harassment it is incumbent on publishers like yourself to set the highest standards as defenders of free speech.
The notice concludes with the following demands:
- Accordingly my clients demand that YOU NOTICEE rescind on the contract that you have entered into with miscellaneous busybodies and immediately commence the publication of Wendy Doniger’s "The Hindus: An Alternative history" and leave the messy act of pulping to those better suited for it—juicers and grinders.
- That in the event you choose to betray our sanguinity about your judgment by abandoning your Penguinity then you have effectively acknowledged that you are no longer interested in exercising your rights as the owners of the copyright in the said work and that you shall license the said work under a general public license which will enable any person to copy, reproduce and circulate whether in print or electronically within the territory of India without the risk of infringing your copyright or hurting your sentiments.
- My clients understand that under normal circumstances if a publisher chooses to relinquish rights assigned to them by an author such rights revert back to reading public and as such it is only fair that you return to the public what you have taken away from it-the right to read and dissent.