Doniger and the Struggles of Academic Inquiry

Wendy Doniger's book 'The Hindus - An Alternative History' sparked a protest by Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) activists near US Embassy in Delhi in 2010. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
Cover of the controversial book 'The Hindus - An Alternative History' by Wendy Doniger
The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s 'The Hindus: An Alternative History', encapsulates the challenges facing freedom of academic expression in an India where the terms of intellectual debate are increasingly set by fringe outfits. In this analysis, Hardeep Dhillon, argues that the withdrawal of 'The Hindus' is a case against allowing religion to serve as an object of academic inquiry. She argues that the controversy raises heavy and pressing concerns about the relationship between academic scholarship, literature, and politicised public spheres. She questions why certain public memories, histories, and politics can make greater claims to truth without experiencing the same reprimand as academic scholarship. Dhillon further argues that though Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code establishes it an offence to insult any religion or the religious beliefs of a group; it also states that such insult must be propelled by deliberate or malicious intent. To establish such intent Dhillon emphasises that 'The Hindus' should be read within its scholarly context.

Recently, University of Chicago professor, Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn from the shelves of Indian bookstores. Penguin India, the book’s publisher, withdrew the book following an out-of-court agreement with petitioner Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS). The group’s advocacy efforts, led by Dinanath Batra, alleged that Dr. Doniger infringed on five different sections of the Indian Penal Code including Section 295A, an anti-blasphemy law that bans acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. The SBAS further charged Dr. Doniger with “a haphazard presentation [of Hinduism] riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”, and, characterised her as a scholar impassioned by “a Christian Missionary Zeal”. Following the withdrawal of The Hindus, the SBAS has also targeted Dr. Doniger’s On Hinduism and pressed the publisher, Aleph Book Company, to review the book with the ultimatum of pursuing legal action.

The controversy over Dr. Doniger’s The Hindus has received widespread media attention and a number of perspectives have been brought forward. I have penned this piece amongst a wide array of opinions in an effort to disentangle some questions and concerns that this controversy has raised for me as a student of twentieth-century Indian history. While the Doniger controversy intersects with a number of issues, including secularism, the role of the state and the rise of right-wing conservative politics, I have highlighted two of these in this piece. The first is on a matter related to history, religion, and politicised publics. The second concerns the very letter of the law.

On Publics And (Scholarly) Literature

Prior to my graduate studies, a young professor of mine at the University of California, Berkeley, began a history course titled “Hindu and Muslim Nationalism” with a small exercise. He asked us to observe our campus through a window in the classroom. We watched students walk by, the leaves flutter under the California sun, and listened as the noise from Sproul Plaza [a major hub of student activity in the University] filled the classroom. The professor then asked three students to recount what they had observed over the past three minutes. While each of the students had observed the same events unfolding outside of the classroom, their accounts differed from one another. Our professor’s point was clear -- no account of history can be uniform because the way we observe, read, interpret, and establish our parameters of inquiry vary, leading to distinct and perhaps overlapping conclusions. Yet, together, these accounts enable us to piece together more nuanced and encompassing histories.

It is from this same notion of multiplicity that a work like Dr. Doniger’s situates itself amongst the scholarship on religion (more broadly) even if we may have our differences with it. The title of her book reflects this multiplicity. Dr. Doniger’s work does not read The History of Hindus but The Hindus: An Alternative History. From the onset, she delineates her intervention in existing literature on Hinduism and religion more broadly without seeking to claim that it is the only analytical account on Hinduism.

The controversy over censoring The Hindus, however, raises heavy and pressing concerns about the relationship between academic scholarship, literature, and increasingly politicised public spheres (whatever their politics may be). The SBAS charged Dr. Doniger for maliciously hurting and offending Hindus. However, it is necessary to distinguish that as a scholar of religion, she does not read religious texts or practices at face value or endow them with an inherent truth. Her interpretation relies on approaches that have been part of a longer tradition, albeit a more Western one, in the study of religion.

To prevent Dr. Doniger from reading and writing from this perspective is a case against allowing religion to serve as an object of academic inquiry. It ultimately suspends the ability of a scholar to critically engage with religion in an analytical way unless it conforms to approved conceptions held by some specific aggressively intolerant organisations. In the case of The Hindus, the SBAS does exactly this -- it lays claim to providing shiksha [education] but only that which it finds to be culturally relevant and appropriate. Historian Janaki Nair has analytically and accurately shown that it is SBAS’ effort to control “the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism” that propels its concern over Doniger’s book. In effect, the SBAS not only seeks to control who participates in the debates on religion and history but also attempts to control the very terms of the debate.

The efforts to ban and censor literary and scholarly texts are also targeted on specifc publications. In this regard, I would like to posit a series of substantive questions: Why is it that texts like V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva do not encounter challenges of censorship? Hindutva clearly calls into question the citizenship of Indian Muslims and portrays them as unfaithful foreigners but it continues to be widely available and read across India. In fact, it is even read in academic circles to provide insight on the foundational ideology of right-wing organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Why is it that academic scholarship bears the brunt of censorship attacks? What is so scandalous or detrimental in academic and literary works that they become threatening to entire worldviews, particularly when they are nuanced and well-researched compositions? My aim is not to privilege academic scholarship but it is, rather, to inquire why certain public memories, histories, and politics can make greater claims to truth without equal reprimand.

On the letter of the law

I would like to now transition to my second issue of concern. In the notice served by SBAS, Dr. Doniger’s work was overshadowed by personal attacks and claims of poor scholarship. Signs that characterize Dr. Doniger as a “Hindu-hater” have become the central form of protest against her book. As a result, her character has become the focus from which arguments against her work are deployed and the seriousness that is required to engage with her scholarly work is overshadowed by a series of preconceptions towards her character. In her recent op-ed, Dr. Doniger has highlighted the brashness of some of her critics and it is clear that they restrict the hope for substantive dialogue.

However, while Sec. 295 of the Indian Penal Code establishes it is an offence to insult the religion or religious beliefs of a group, it also states that such insult must be propelled by deliberate or malicious intent. In the litigation process between Penguin India and SBAS, it would be interesting to see how and if this conversation was carried out. Moreover, if malicious or deliberate intent is to be established, The Hindus must be read within its scholarly context. Questions regarding the intervention Dr. Doniger attempts to make in recent and past scholarship, the methodology through which her research questions are explored, the archival base and evidence from which she draws, and the interpretation of sources become a central focus. If intent is explored seriously, many of the claims SBAS has put forward against Dr. Doniger will hold little or no legal weight.

Some claim that efforts to censor Dr. Doniger’s book have backfired due to the increased readership of her book. However, the fact remains that The Hindus can no longer be discussed as an open facet of public education in India. This, in itself, is a loss that cannot be reconciled by increased sales because it spans beyond the parameters of any single book. Moreover, in Dr. Doniger’s case, the state has remained largely absent and the lack of an assured non-violent space inevitably impacts the degree to how openly scholarship and literary texts can circulate in the future, particularly within the public domain.

A second matter related to the letter of the law is its presumption of a society comprised of religious communities. However, who is to determine or lay claim to what is offensive or hurtful to any community? There is no singular, homogeneous voice that has risen from Hindus on the issue. In fact, it is quite obvious that the terms of the debate are being set by organisations like the SBAS who position themselves as representatives of the Hindu community. Yet, how can this single organisation determine what is offensive to a Hindu and what is not? By homogenizing a population, groups such as the SBAS make claims to community without respect for the diversity within. Historically, such essentialization has been particularly detrimental to more marginal segments of the ascribed population, including women and low-caste groups. This is why a book like The Hindus was penned in the first place – to open spaces for discussion.

Enduring challenges

I would like to conclude by recounting an incident that occurred in one of my courses last November at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). During the last class session for a course, another graduate student inquired about truth in history writing. He was flustered by the notion that there could be two historical narratives that could conflict but still hold factual weight. His frustration perhaps stemmed from the assumption that there is always one narrative in history that holds greater truth value and prevails over others. What was interesting for me to note was that his source of frustration was a factor that compelled me to study history. The complex and nuanced narratives that could not be packaged as a simple story for others to consume opened up a series of questions that propelled me to think more critically about the material at hand. Yet, this perspective requires a willingness to respect and grapple with things unknown even if they conflict with one another and our own worldviews. In this mode of shiksha, a desire to learn without aggressive temperament is developed and a politics for inclusion is honed. The struggles against groups like the SBAS are also given fuel through a line of questioning that challenge such authoritarian claims. Fortunately, these challenges will continue to ensue for as long as history and religion remain, so will their scholars.

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