When Penguin turned Chicken
Victimhood is a shop round the corner and I want my daily bread.
There are many stories associated with Henry Ford, the inventor of the assembly-line, and one such merits retelling. Legend has it that Ford once asked his men to scour the junkyards to find out which part of his beloved Model T was still in working order even though the car had long gone to pieces. The men came back and told him it was the axle. “Well”, said Ford, “make sure this darned axle never outlasts the car from hereon”.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Books, though, are not cars. Books contain ideas, and ideas cannot be taken out, scrubbed or altered and then put back again. They are meant to outlast their temporary home built of paper and glue. Books are not assembled. If they were, the famous adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts would no longer hold true. A book is meant to last till eternity, but only if the author and his publisher stand by it. If they chicken out midway, it follows that either the author or the publisher did not have enough faith in the book in the first place.
Battles are not won by calling time-outs.
The decision of Penguin to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History – withdraw it and squash it to pulp – in the face of a court case filed by Dinanath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan is deplorable. What is more deplorable is the spin that is being given to this decision. Penguin is no longer the scapegoat. Jairam Ramesh was the first to lend support to Penguin, venting his ire at Dinanath and his fellow-petitioners. “The organisation that demanded Penguin take such action is clearly some Taliban-type outfit. It is distorting and destroying our liberal traditions. I hope Penguin reconsiders its decision and musters up courage to tell this outfit off”, he said. He conveniently forgets that, not very long ago, it was presumably another Taliban-type outfit, the Congress Party that demanded a ban on Javier Moro’s El Saro Rojo, The Red Sari – a book on Sonia Gandhi.
What the Congress Party did to Moro and his book was nothing new. Salman Rushdie, in his introduction to Midnight’s Children, gives a detailed account of how Indira Gandhi took him to court over an innocuous remark regarding Sanjay Gandhi. And lest we forget, the cynosure of every Indian writer and publisher, Khushwant Singh, was the first to advocate a ban on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
These aren’t exceptions. Every political party has tried to ban books. What is unfortunate in this case is that the sugar-coated let-off has come from the author herself. She should have been readying a team of lawyers to sue the tailcoat off Penguin. Instead, here is what she said. “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India.” Taking cue, many intellectuals have termed Dinanath and his fellow petitioners as “cretins” and “idiots”.
Yes, quite right – there exists a law, in fact an article framed in our Constitution, and those who exercise their legitimate right to go to court citing it are worthy of the choicest abuses – abuses that were theirs for the taking had they burnt the book on the streets instead. But, woe befall on them, they went to court, these cretins and idiots. Life would have been so much easier had they displayed Shiv Sena-like hooliganism: trashed a library, hurled rocks at someone, burnt the book and a few offices to go along with it. This convenience – hinsa over ahinsa – was denied to the abusers, unfortunately. Not that it deterred them in any way.
Ridiculous as it may sound, and notwithstanding the hypocrisy of the free-speech flame-throwers and keepers, I do not blame them one bit. What I blame – and what, sadly, they deliberately don’t – is this monstrous clause 2 of Article 19 (1) of our Constitution which states that “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression subject to ‘reasonable restrictions’ that, among other things, are ‘public order’ and ‘decency’ and ‘morality’”.
A year ago to the day, I had written an article called A Requiem for Galileo, protesting against the then Chief Justice’s rebuke of a lawyer that went along the lines of: “Yes, why not, an idea can be punished!”. Painful though it was to hear, the Chief Justice was right in what he said, his defence being the infamous clause 2.
“Clause 2”, I had written, “is what will sound the death knell for freedom in this nation of ours. It is because of clause 2 that Rushdie was hounded out of Jaipur, Swamy was ejected from Harvard, Nasreen was chased from Kolkata, Hussain was dismounted from his horses, and clause 2 it is that has made Nandy a fugitive in his own country. Are we going to imprison those millions of Naga Sadhus whose dangling penises we may find an affront to our ‘decency’? Are we going to blast those temples of Khajuraho whose walls may assault our sense of ‘morality’? That fine lady who stands atop our temples of justice is tired of our self-righteousness and her sword that is pointing to the skies is blunted and her blindfold is perforated and her scales are rusted, and she is crying hearing someone say that ideas can be punished.”
Overbearing exhortation aside, there’s no getting away from the truth: in our country, ideas can be punished. That is why Clause 2 must be done away with. But until such time it is, until such time we demand a change in our Constitution, it is incredulous to ask people to stop exercising their legal rights. Personal choices do not dictate how societies function. I may not have wanted Dinanath to knock at the courts, but that’s just me. Dinanath does not become a cretin by virtue of the fact that he wants to invoke Clause 2. Instead of lambasting Penguin, writers are castigating a man for going to court to have a book banned. They are deliberately ignoring the fact that unless one changes the Constitution, clause 2 stands and anyone is within his right to use it. Anyone. How can one be blamed for going to court? Is Abhishek Manu Singhvi – who got Moro’s book banned – a cretin? Is Indira Gandhi one? This stand is not only hypocritical, it defies all logic. What else are courts for?
Dinanath didn’t burn Wendy’s book on the street. He went to the courts where the verdict could have easily gone against him. It is Penguin that short-changed the author, Penguin that agreed to pulp the book. It is all very well to lament court delays and asinine laws. Yes, they are archaic and arcane and all the shades in-between. But the delay is same for everyone. If a poor farmer can wait for as long as it takes to get justice in this country, Wendy Doniger must, too. If the delay is painful, change the justice system, change the laws, change the Constitution, but till such time you do, follow the laws of the land and let others do the same.
I may not find Doniger’s unbridled Freudian associations with Lord Shiva’s nuclear family hurtful – in fact I don’t. But that is my personal opinion. Would those editors and anchors kicking Dinanath in the shins have the guts to publish Danish cartoons in solidarity with their Scandinavian counterparts? Would those protesting the pulping of Doniger’s book have the moral fibre to withdraw their own books published by Penguin? “I am a Penguin author and I’m disgusted by Penguin’s action and I’ve sent them a notice to withdraw all my books”, is a comment I haven’t heard since the storm erupted.
There is also another aspect to this controversy. One cannot help but ask: Can a 5000-year-old religion be destroyed by slander, misrepresentation, abuse – all non-physical, when the brutal physical force of countless invasions couldn’t destroy it? My personal opinion is it cannot, but I have no right to stop someone from believing that it can be destroyed. I have no right to stop him from going to courts over it.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, his usual erudite self, has written on the issue. He calls it the Silencing of Liberal India. What he fails to understand is that for an atheist, liberalism was silenced the day god was invented. Does that give atheists the right to run rampage and call believers idiots and ignorant fools?
Yes, there is unnecessary hurt all around. Increasingly, people feel aggrieved by a written word, they get angry at the drop of a hat. But it is astonishing to blame an individual for exercising his right to get angry and move courts. What should be of prime importance is to somehow get clause 2 removed from our Constitution. That no one is willing to write for – in solidarity or in spite of it.