US academic 'angry' after book on Hindus pulped in India

DELHI (AFP) - American scholar Wendy Doniger said she was "angry and disappointed" that all copies of her latest book on Hinduism will be pulped in India after a legal row that has ignited fears about free speech.

Her publisher Penguin agreed on Monday to withdraw the 2009 book "The Hindus: An Alternative History" to settle a court battle with an activist group which took offence to the depiction of the religion.

"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," she wrote in an email statement on Tuesday.

Dr Doniger, 74, wrote in her statement that 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."

The Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee, a group of Hindu academics, filed civil and criminal suits in a New Delhi court claiming the book contained factual errors and parts of it misrepresented Hindu mythology.

Other writers and champions of free speech have widely criticised Penguin's decision to cave into pressure and reach a settlement, rather than fight the case and seek to challenge any lower court ruling on appeal.

"The agreement by the publisher to withdraw it is like putting a contract out on free expression," wrote commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an opinion piece in The Indian Express newspaper.

Penguin India has not responded to repeated requests for comment, but Dr Doninger sprang to the defence of the publisher, which is part of the publishing giant Penguin Random House.

"Penguin India took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit," she wrote.

The mutual agreement between the publisher and the activist group does not impose any legal binding on any other Indian publisher that wishes to publish Dr Doniger's book in India, lawyers say.

Many authors and artists practise self-censorship in religiously diverse India, which is about 80 per cent Hindu, due to tough laws against inciting communal violence and a powerful censor.

India banned Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" which is viewed by some Muslims as blasphemous.

Dr Doniger said in her statement that she was glad that in the age of the Internet books could not be suppressed - even ones that might offend Hindus.

"'The Hindus' is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation," she wrote.

Last year, the Indian unit of Bloomsbury agreed to withdraw The Descent of Air India, authored by a former executive of the national carrier, after a complaint from former aviation minister Praful Patel.

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