Pulping Intellectual Freedom: Academics will not bow down to vigilantism

This demand that academic study of religion be directed by, and tailored for a community of believers, with an unlimited potential for ‘hurt’ is simply preposterous and thoroughly unacceptable 

It is an abject shame that Penguin will pulp Prof. Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. That this decision was reached in a deal with the petitioners, with no consultation with the author compounds the folly.  Coming in the wake of Oxford University Press’ similar meek surrender by suspending publication of Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas – though forced to revert its decision in the aftermath of a spirited protest by senior academics from across the world – and the Delhi University’s purging of A.K. Ramanujam’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, this episode shows that mighty publishing houses and premier universities will crumble under the slightest attack on academic freedom.  

Wendy Doniger writes on subjects long considered taboo by mainstream Indologists: animals, sex, violence – but her style of writing, full of wit and humor and storytelling, was beloved of many outside of academia. This has also turned her into an object of scorn and hatred among Hindutva groups, especially among the diaspora. The low level of attacks – from the egg thrown at her in London to distasteful speculation of her personal sexuality by a US-based Indian businessman, patron and poseur of Right wing Hindu Studies – has only exposed the shallowness of her critics. 

In 2003, Paul Courtright’s Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings was similarly attacked for its psychoanalytic approach. A petition by Hindu Students Council in the US demanded from the author an “unequivocal apology to the Hindus”, leading the publisher Motilal Banarsidas to swiftly withdraw the book with the promise that such a “lapse” would never occur again. The petition also insisted that Coutright re-write the passages which the petitioners found offensive and issue a revised version with clarifications. 

This demand that academic study of religion be directed by, and tailored for a community of believers, with an unlimited potential for ‘hurt’ is simply preposterous and thoroughly unacceptable.  Many of us – Historians, sociologists, Indologists – are engaged in scholarship on religion. Some of us are believers, some are not. Some of us study our own communities, many train their lenses on others. 

We believe that all scholarship is open to criticism – especially by those who claim to speak on behalf of the community, as insiders. Indeed, it would add to the richness of debate. However, threats, personal attacks, calls for censorship and recourse to perennially offended sentiments cannot be permitted to hold academic enquiry to ransom. 

As academics, we will robustly defend our right to work on themes of our choice with theoretical frameworks of our choosing. 

A.Ram Babu, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Abhijit Kundu, Dept. of Sociology, Sri Venketeswara College, University of Delhi

Adil Mehdi, Dept. of English, JMI, Delhi

Adnan Farooqui, Dept. of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

Ahmed Sohaib, Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions, JMI, Delhi

Ambarien Alqadr, MCRC, JMI, Delhi

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