Arundhati Roy criticises Penguin for pulping The Hindus: An Alternative History

Novelist called on Penguin to explain decision to pulp contentious book

Delhi

The Booker prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy has stepped into a debate over the decision by an Indian publisher to pulp a contentious book, saying that the move “affects us all”. The controversy is taking place amid India’s increasingly bitter general election campaign.

“Everybody is shocked at what you have done,” Ms Roy said in an open letter to Penguin Books India. “You must tell us what happened. What terrified you? The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning... And you’ve already succumbed.”

Ms Roy, several of whose books have been published by Penguin Books India, including the celebrated The God of Small Things, wrote the letter after it emerged the publishing house had agreed to pulp all its outstanding copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Over the years, the book by US scholar and indologist Wendy Doniger, has upset some Hindus with its interpretation of the faith. This week it emerged Penguin had buckled to pressure following a lawsuit filed by organisation made up of Hindu academics. Several members of the organisation, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee, are also members of a conservative Hindu movement that is close to India’s main opposition political party.

The group filed the lawsuit against Penguin in 2010. It claimed the book contained “heresies and factual inaccuracies” and criticised Ms Doniger for having a selective approach to writing about Hinduism.

This week, a copy of a court agreement in which the publishers agreed to withdraw all copies of the book “at the earliest”, was published on social media. The development triggered an outcry among free speech campaigners who said the decision would be a set-back for India. India notoriously banned Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which is viewed by some Muslims as blasphemous.

In her letter, Ms Roy wrote: “Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world.

“You existed long before publishing became just another business and long before books become products like any other perishable product in the market – mosquito repellent or scented soap.”

Penguin Books India, part of Penguin Random House, has refused to comment on the matter. But Ms Doniger has defended the publisher, saying it had taken on the book four years ago knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva, or hardcore Hindu, ranks.

She said the publisher had fought the action but was hampered by Indian law which makes it a criminal, rather than a civil offence, to publish anything that offends somebody’s religious sentiments.

“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,” Ms Doniger, 74, a professor at the University of Chicago, said in a statement.

“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.”

The move comes as India is readying itself for a general election. The presumed front-runner is Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who yesterday met the US ambassador to India.

It was the US’s first official interaction with Mr Modi for more than ten years and underscored the widely held view that Mr Modi could well become India’s next prime minister. A boycott was enforced by the US, UK and other Western nations after hundreds of Muslims were killed in Mr Modi’s state of Gujarat in 2002. He has been accused of failing to prevent the killings, though he has always denied this.

A number of high profile literary figures have spoken out against the decision taken Penguin Books India, which is part of Random House. William Dalrymple said it added to a sense of nervousness for liberals ahead of the election.

Yet like Ms Doniger, he said the main culprit was India’s colonial-era penal code and Section 295 in particular. The historian and novelist, who helps organise the annual Jaipur Literature Festival, said every year the organisers had to vow that non-one’s religious sentiments would be hurt before the event could go ahead. “The law is outdated. It should have been scrapped 65 years ago,” he added.

A number of politicians have also joined the fray. Government minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters: “The book is not blasphemous. She is a scholar without any political agenda. The organisation that demanded Penguin take such action is clearly some Taliban-type outfit. It is distorting and destroying our liberal traditions.”

Over the years Mr Modi has assiduously courted conservative Hindu voters. Yet his supporters point out that when books have been banned in India it has always taken place during the rule of Congress party-led governments.

Kanchan Gupta, a conservative journalist who was once a media advisor for BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said India was no more politically charged than it was every five years when there was an election. He said the publishers could have fought the legal action but choose not to. “I don’t think Penguin wanted to get into a long, drawn-out case.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week