Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus

Rohit Dhankar
The debate around Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus has stopped being interesting. But I was reminded about it in conversation with some scholars yesterday. There are some partially formed ideas in my mind about this whole episode, they came to for in this conversation. So thought of sharing these ideas on this informal forum. Obviously they are not fully developed.

The petitioners
So far this time the petitioners cannot be faulted on legal grounds.
• I am not aware if they have issued any threats of violence or actually indulged in it.
• They have countered Doniger on her own ground. Provided a list of errors, mistranslations and untenable interpretations. This is appropriate and proper way of countering a book. Veracity/acceptability of all this could be more or less objectively ascertained.
• They have used the law of the land. If the law is faulty one cannot blame the petitioners for its use. Make better laws, but as long as they are available, one cannot stop citizens from using them.
• They claim some of Doniger’s interpretations etc. are offensive to Hindus. They are no representatives of Hindus and cannot claim anything on behalf of all Hindus. However, they have the right to express their own opinion if they felt slighted. This is their opinion, they have right to express it; but withdrawal of a book on this basis certainly is not justified.

• It is Penguin’s right to decide whether they should consider the claimed errors and misrepresentations weighty enough to withdraw the book.
• This is also their right to decide if the legal battle is becoming too costly for them. We cannot demand moral commitment in the face of financial losses from a business, a publishing company is ultimately a business.
• But we can morally blame a business for not upholding the moral principle of freedom of speech, which is so integral to publishing. And Penguin can be blamed for that. There is a difference between a binding demand and moral blame.

Wendy Doniger
• I have read only one book by her about a year and half back, actually the book under question.
• She did not come across as a scholar to me at all. It is more of a popular writing with shoddy scholarship.
• Mistranslation is replete.
• Misinterpretation is the meet of the book.
• Still there are many places where she shows insight and also presents not-commonly known references and flashes of insight.
• At places she sounds to be deliberately courting controversy.
• But an author has the right to do all this. And authors do make errors.
• In my view authors do have the right to offend deliberately, if they want to oppose certain views.

And still to my mind it is a serious issue of freedom of speech/expression

• We should oppose the laws that could be used too easily and too heavily against the authors and publishers. Authors and publishers need more space in a free and democratic society.
• We should disapprove of the weak-kneed publishers and shun them.
• We should expose and disapprove of citizens who use unwanted laws to propagate their own views and thwart others; it is an issue of opinion making and not disallowing them from using such laws.
• We should express our solidarity even for bad and shoddy authors.
• But we should also appreciate the more legal and informed path the petitioners are taking. That allows them a legitimate path to air their grievances. This is an improvement upon threats of violence, burning properly, killing of authors, and so on. This could be considered a step towards finally accepting that the books should be countered by books/articles only. The movement could be seen as resolving grievances through violence–>legal recourse–>Countering academically and through informed debates.

Legal recourse is a form of discourse, we should appreciate that.

This is purely on the basis of available information. It is fairly possible that the Shiksha Bachao Samiti (or whatever it is) is actually taking the legal path only to foment trouble enough to create street violence. If we see signs of that, of course, they should be condemned and countered on different grounds.

Doniger’s own defense in a New York Times article:

As usual: half-truths, misinterpretations and self-importance.

Can I call Lalu’s, Khap Panchayat’s and Maoists’s interpretation of Democracy an “Indian Understanding of Democracy”? There is no problem in including all this as various interpretations of democracy, but can one say that that is how actually Indian democracy looks or is? That is what Doniger does.

In the NYT article she says nothing about her faulty translation. Under-emphasises the other interpretation of symbols—for example, Lingam also is supposed to be a symbol of ‘aadi creative energy’.

By the way I have no problem regarding her book. All badly written books have equal right to be published and sold. But she does not even respond to charges made by someone as intellectually puny as Dinanath Batra and his friends!!

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