NOTE: This post represents the opinions of the author alone, and not necessarily those of the “Indian Philosophy Blog.”
Many of you may already have read about Penguin India’s decision to recall and pulp all copies of Wendy Doniger’s 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. in response to a series of legal challenges from a right-wing Hindu group. This decision raises important questions about the foundations of free speech, and especially the freedom to conduct serious and critical scholarly research. There is the issue of whether Indian law provides sufficient protection to scholars—article 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code makes it a criminal offense to “insult the religious beliefs” of anyone—and there is the potentially larger issue of how we can hope to have, in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy, a space for critical discussion that is protected from censorship and intimidation.
Readers of this blog might know well that India has long traditions of argumentation, and these have always involved “taking the other side seriously”: one of the foundations of Indian philosophical discourse is taking the trouble to read and deeply understand your opponent’s views, presenting those views fairly and in good faith, and then and only then subjecting those views to a reasoned critique. This is not just a courtesy, but an essential precondition of philosophical discourse as such: people like Bhaṭṭa Jayanta would always prefer to engage with positions that were different from their own, rather than to silence them, even when the differences concerned those things that are arguably most important—the existence of God, for example. And some traditions even built the many-sided nature of truth into the very foundations of their philosophy. The politics of outrage and offence, and the struggle to ban and silence competing viewpoints, are antithetical to this long tradition of reasoned debate. They impoverish public discourse and they endanger critique and the kind of truths that depend on critique.
I would like to alert readers to an online petition asking Penguin India to reverse its decision and demanding the revision of the sections of the Indian Penal Code involved in this controversy.