I’m not sure how much attention anyone pays to newspaper editorials these days — probably not a lot — but nevertheless it was good to see the New York Times strongly denouncing a troubling case of censorship in India in an editorial yesterday. This is a case, not of official government censorship, but censorship by the market. Penguin Books has agreed to remove a scholarly book called The Hindus: An Alternative History from bookshelves as the result of an out-of-court settlement.

Hindu nationalists had taken Penguin to court because they deemed the book, which is by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger, offensive. (Full disclosure: Wendy is a friend, but I am certainly not speaking for her here, nor have I informed her that I am writing this). As the Times notes, a colonial-era law “makes it a crime to outrage ‘the religious feeling’ of Indians.”

India’s climate, it appears, is increasingly hostile to free speech. The Times has a good summary:

In December, India’s Supreme Court granted a stay of publication against a book about an Indian conglomerate, the Sahara Group, after it filed suit against the author. In 2011, Siddhartha Deb’s “The Beautiful and the Damned” was published in India minus a chapter after the person who was the subject of that chapter filed suit in an obscure provincial court. Outdated laws are only part of India’s free-speech crisis. Hindu nationalists, in particular, have lashed out against speech they do not like with threats of violence. Penguin, for example, cited “a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment” in withdrawing Ms. Doniger’s book.

Meanwhile, simply reporting the news in India has become a potentially dangerous undertaking. In a report published last week, Reporters Without Borders ranked India 140th for free speech out of 180 countries surveyed. Journalists regularly face pressure, including direct threats, to tread lightly when reporting or commenting on Hindu-nationalist views or candidates.

And that’s not all. In 2012, Salman Rushdie canceled plans to attend a literary festival in Jaipur after receiving death threats from Muslim extremists. The ban against his novel The Satanic Verses, which has been in effect in India since the book’s publication in 1988, has never been lifted — even though the fatwa against him was revoked long ago.

Then there’s the case of Bengali writer Taslima Nareen, who, like Doniger, is a feminist and the author of book dealing with sexual and religious themes that got her in trouble with Indian religious authorities. Nareen’s 1993 novel Shame resulted in death threats, house arrest, and exile.

Doniger has also received death threats and hate mail. In 2003, she was egged at a lecture in London. She has said she will never set foot in India again (it’s too dangerous), and she tells her graduate students who do research there not to let anyone know that they are working with her. Doniger is one of the world’s great scholars of Hinduism, and as the author of this piece argues, The Hindus is “a tribute to Hindu’s complexity, not an insult.” The lawsuit against the book claimed that The Hindus was written with “Christian missionary zeal and the hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus” — a particularly fascinating charge to make against a scholar who is Jewish. But then again that same complaint also accused Doniger of being “a woman hungry of sex.” It’s amazing that this crap held up in court.

Though Doniger has said she is “angry and disappointed” at the fate of her book in India, this episode has had at least one personal upside for her. It’s caused a four-year old academic book to shoot up the best-seller list, reaching number 11 on Amazon. It’s also interesting to note that it’s a lot harder to ban books than it used to be. The Hindus is available on Kindle, which means that in many places in the world, it’s not very hard to get a hold of if you want to read it — even in India.

Doniger doesn’t blame Penguin for its decision to pull the book. She says that “the the true villain of this piece” is

the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.

Other observers disagree with this analysis. Writing in The New Yorker, Jonathan Shainin points the finger, in part, at Penguin:

In the absence of further clarification from Penguin, we are left with the dispiriting sight of the world’s largest trade publisher—the recently merged Penguin Random House—surrendering to a spurious legal threat from a minor advocacy group. Seen from this perspective, it seems certain that the decision to withdraw the book was not made in Delhi. It is all too easy to imagine that Bertelsmann and Pearson, the European conglomerates that share ownership of the company, concluded that a long legal struggle to defend free speech in India was not worth even a minor cost to the bottom line.

Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) wrote an angry open letter to Penguin, her publisher:

Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? [Snip] You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement. Why? You have all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle. [Snip] You must tell us what happened. What was it that terrified you? You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least.

Clearly, there is much more to this story. I hope we find out what it is.

Finally, in the Huffington Post, Jehangir S. Pocha situates l’affaire Doniger and other Indian censorship episodes in the context not only of nationalism and resurgent religious fundamentalism, but of India’s embrace of the free market:

About 25 years ago when India kicked off the economic reforms that ignited the national reconsideration roiling the nation today, many dreamt of turning their nation into another United States. But somewhere in the haste to achieve that, India has fallen into growing social conservatism, unfettered (crony) capitalism, rising ultra-nationalism and an increasing comfort with political authoritarianism that could well end up making it more like Putin’s Russia.

Narendra Modi, the head of the BJP, India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party, appears to be the frontrunner to become the country’s next prime minister. Modi is a real piece of work who has been credibly implicated in mass murder. Modi’s rise, and fact that the countries with the world’s two largest emerging economies — India and China — also have such appalling records when it comes to protecting free speech is deeply disturbing, and that’s putting it mildly.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee