Get Out, We Have No Customs

In February 2014, it emerged that Penguin India had agreed—after defending the book in court for four years—to an out-of-court settlement. The Hindus would cease to be sold in India, and the remaining inventory would be destroyed.

On Wendy Doniger's The Hindus

Cover art from Wendy Doniger's The Hindus

There are never such things as the “bare facts” of a case, but here’s an attempt to state them. Wendy Doniger, a senior academic at the University of Chicago, wrote The Hindus: An Alternative History, an 800-page book published in the US and India in 2009 by Penguin. The Israeli American scholar David Shulman captured the general tone of qualified praise in both the US and the Indian English-language press when he wrote in his review of the book that “Experts on India and professional historians of South Asia will . . . find something to disagree with on every page.” Still, he found himself “charmed by Doniger’s scintillating and irreverent prose,” and the historical narrative of “India as seen largely through the eyes of people on the margins of life— . . . women, low castes, tribals, and Dalits (who used to be called Untouchables).”

Many of the book’s early champions in the newspaper review pages were Indians, some practicing Hindus. Critics took up this or that historical claim, argued against this or that textual interpretation, but there was no suggestion that the book, for all the acknowledged irreverence of its style, was in any way offensive.

This soon changed. The Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group many of whose members are first- or second-generation Indian immigrants to the United States, wrote to the president of the Penguin Group to complain about “factual and historical inaccuracies” in the book, which they say had “the potential of being highly offensive to a religious minority in the US.” One Indian expatriate, a historical autodidact, compiled an impressively long—and sometimes tendentious—list of such putative errors, misinterpretations, and derogatory remarks.

In India, in the meantime, Dinanath Batra, a retired schoolteacher who had spent the last several years in legal battles over the contents of school and university curriculums sent Penguin India a legal notice declaring himself offended by Doniger’s book. The notice was not a felicitous piece of prose, but the source of Batra’s offense seemed to be Doniger’s treatments of sexual themes in the history of Hinduism and her claims about the lack of doctrinal unity in Hindu practice. Doniger’s book was, the notice said, “a shallow, distorted, and non-serious presentation of Hinduism . . . written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in a poor light. . . . The intent is clearly to ridicule, humiliate, and defame the Hindus and denigrate the Hindu traditions.”

The notice was evidently written with the wording of section 295A of the Indian Penal Code in mind, which deals with “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” In February 2014, it emerged that Penguin India had agreed—after defending the book in court for four years—to an out-of-court settlement. The Hindus would cease to be sold in India, and the remaining inventory would be destroyed.

The affair provoked a voluminous amount of editorializing, particularly in the country’s English-language media, raising broadly two sets of issues. The first took up the obvious liberal questions about freedom of speech; the second had to do with the contents of Doniger’s book and the academic study of Hinduism in the United States more generally. The two questions are logically distinct, but conversations about freedom of speech in India have rarely treated them as such.

These conversations have tended, virtually without exception, to devolve into predictable sessions of whatabouttery: Where were you when the Indian government banned the import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in deference to Muslim sentiment? Or when the Bangladeshi feminist novelist Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of the city of Kolkata by threats to her life from an Islamic group? There have been a few dozen other such cases, covering the gamut of Indian ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian communities. Novelists in several languages, scholars, artists, and librarians have all been targets of attack.

The charges of hypocrisy frequently leveled in these conversations have been largely justified where politicians have been concerned. Indian politicians have taken a principled line on freedom of speech in inverse proportion to their dependence on the votes of the aggrieved minority in question. Self-identified liberals in the English-language media and academy have been less vulnerable to the charge, although few of their accusers stay to listen while they present their credentials.

However consistent their public stance on these cases, they have been faced with a public discourse in which debates over free speech are never debates about free speech. As the political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, whose columns for the Indian Express are a reliable bellwether of liberal opinion, put it, neither the aggrieved Hindus nor Muslims “have an interest in delineating the justifiable contours of what counts as offensive speech. What they have, rather, is an interest in demonstrating their power.” This is right, as far as it goes, but the emphasis on principle over power risks occluding some important facts.

In Doniger’s case, liberals were quick to denounce those they saw as ban-happy reactionaries. Penguin too stood accused of a craven capitulation to reactionaries and of failing to do their duty by their author in not defending the book all the way to the highest court of appeal. After all, the court had not delivered its verdict, and there was certainly a case to be made for Doniger’s having had no intention to offend. But the ambivalent jurisprudence on free speech in India, with its low bar on evidence for any actual intention to cause offense, cannot have given Penguin’s legal counsel much hope for a favorable verdict.

Liberalism of the I-disagree-but-defend-your-right-et-cetera kind has its articulate voices in India, but no party political platform.


Doniger herself joined Penguin in blaming the law. As Penguin’s statement had it, “We believe . . . that the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” Liberal editorializing has been followed by some attempt at addressing 295A itself, and a petition calling for reform to the relevant statutes to protect artists and scholars has been doing the rounds. There are many reasons to welcome the petition, but just as many to be pessimistic about its potential to change anything.

Liberalism of the I-disagree-but-defend-your-right-et-cetera kind has its articulate voices in India, but no party political platform. A significant part of India’s middle class, even those of weak religious commitment, have tended to prefer order to liberty, and tend to think the whole business of offense is best avoided by saying nothing that might offend. The preferences of India’s first prime minister, the agnostic Jawaharlal Nehru, for science and technology over the humanities created the conditions for the near-total absence of theology as an academic discipline in Indian universities today. There are still few settings for public debate about religion that are sufficiently sequestered from politics and the threat of violence for such conversations to be anything but risky.

It matters also that the opponents of such liberalism, once we go beyond this particular case, turn out to be not only revanchist Hindus but also a host of organizations claiming to represent Muslim, Christian, and Sikh interests, and also groups standing up for the rights of India’s Dalits, at least some of whom consider themselves Hindus, albeit Hindus with a history of being oppressed by other (“caste”) Hindus. Another Indian free speech martyr in recent memory, to put it loosely, is the sociologist Ashis Nandy—a signatory to the petition calling for reforms to 295A—who faced threats of prosecution under the “Prevention of Atrocities Act” after making remarks at a literary festival to the effect that venality was rife among people from the “backward castes” (Nandy’s point, clumsily made, was that corruption could act as a social leveler in a society in which things are stacked against those of low-caste backgrounds).

What unites these forms of opposition to free speech is that they rely on a perception of liberty as a threat to something else—such as self-respect or power. The ability to take advantage of a right to free speech is inevitably tied up with existing relations of power, and a mere assertion of the liberal principle can, to those not already convinced of it, sound like an assertion of privilege.

It is a darkly comic fact about Indian politics that the most vocal voices in every community, and not just those in a minority, are convinced they are under siege. It is difficult to see how a principled commitment to liberty can coexist with a siege mentality. Liberals reasonably insist that everyone will be more empowered if free speech is upheld. But this requires everyone to play by the same rules, and history has left Indians disinclined to trust to the good faith of the other players in the game. They have, in consequence, preferred to play spot-the-hypocrite instead.

Critics of specifically Hindu objections to this or that book or artwork have tended to be puzzled about how Hindus—in an overwhelming numerical majority in India—came to see themselves as under siege. But that self-conception has its origins in a long history of real and perceived subjection, and even more in recent attempts by the “Hindu right” to put that history to electoral use. The broad outlines of this history have a Hindu India falling prey to a series of Islamic invaders from central Asia in the medieval period, when the political and cultural freedom of recusant Hindus is severely restricted. The succession of Muslim dynasties is eventually evicted by an equally foreign British colonial regime that is just as inimical to Hindu political interests. Successive postcolonial regimes, dominated by secular liberals beholden to the electoral support of non-Hindu minorities, do nothing to improve the situation.

Not all Hindus take this view of history, and not all who do deduce from it anything of importance for contemporary politics. Yet, this narrative of violence and subjection has played like an ominous throb under the mainstream narrative of Indian history, which has been much concerned to stress a long (and also real) history of peaceful coexistence between India’s religious communities.1 This has left the study of India’s history, medieval and ancient, a tense business, every scholarly claim about the distant past having the potential to ramify violently in the present. But India suffers also from a more general suspicion about (historical) scholarship that goes back at least as far as the colonial era, when European scholars, many of them Christian missionaries, acquired a de facto authority to interpret Indian texts and practices, often in ways that showed little or no deference to Indian interpretative traditions.

In the 20th century, the best known example of Indians bristling at a hostile ethnographer has been the case of Mother India, the American writer Katherine Mayo’s influential 1927 polemic against the Indian nationalist movement on the grounds that India—caste-ridden, patriarchal and smelly—was better off under the British. The book is little read today, except as the provocation for one of Gandhi’s most recycled lines: “it is the report of a drain inspector sent out . . . to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains.”

The pioneering Indian anthropologist M N Srinivas recalls the immediate effect of the book on many Indians’ reception of scholarly attention to their traditions. His discipline was especially vulnerable—what greater insult than to be thought fit subject for anthropology. A late memoir has him being chased out of a middle-class club in Vijaywada in the ’40s “by a fat walking-stick-wielding lawyer who thought I was planning to do a Katherine Mayo on the august culture of the Telugus. I was asking questions about caste, kinship, festivals, fasts, and fairs when the angry lawyer lunged at me and said, ‘get out, we have no customs.’”

The question is whether Doniger and other scholars in American academia writing on the history of Hinduism remain, for all their protestations to the contrary, crypto-Orientalists.


One will encounter some version of this argument in criticism of Doniger from Hindus on the internet. In its most paranoid forms, this has Doniger part of a “cabal” of malicious American academics funded by the Vatican to represent Hinduism as a crazed cult of orgiastic phallus-worship interspersed with bouts of violence against women and “untouchables.” The discovery that Doniger is in fact a secular Jew does nothing to unsettle credence in this particular conspiracy theory.

The writings of Rajiv Malhotra, the Indian American entrepreneur-turned-writer who has been leading the charge against Doniger (and American academia more generally) for almost two decades now, have grown steadily more cautious, except when they exaggerate for rhetorical effect. To sum up a now extensive corpus of polemical writings, Malhotra charges Doniger with using her academic influence to perpetuate readings of Hindu texts based on psychoanalytic interpretative methods that disproportionately stress their sexual content, thus turning this tradition into “stereotyped exotica and erotica, trivializing its rationality and its spiritual truth-claims as fodder for psychoanalysis” to the point that “the tradition is seen as not having anything positive to offer to a serious and rational young person.” (The quotations are from Malhotra’s long, punchy, and uneven 1997 essay, “Wendy’s Child Syndrome.”) The picture of Hinduism a reader will get from Doniger’s books, he says, is simply unrecognizable to the practicing Hindu.

Malhotra is a suave speaker and his writings range from blunt ad hominem broadsides to more discursive exercises in comparative theology, in which he is self-taught but formidably well read. The more thoughtful persona he displays in his most recent books, both of which have found a mainstream trade publisher, attempts a defense of the essential unity he argues underlies the appearance of irreconcilable diversity in Hindu philosophies and practices, and a robust attack on the notion that “Hinduism” was a 19th-century, part-colonial invention. He denies any direct involvement with political Hinduism in India (though many of his admirers on the internet are wedded to that project). That political project is, to his mind, “too political and reactionary” and committed to a Western-style historicism he rejects. He is not anxious, as some political Hindus are, to prove the historicity of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, and is left cold by the violent conflict over a 16th-century mosque believed to have been built on the ruins of a temple commemorating the birthplace of the epic’s divine hero Rama.

Part of why his project seems to have few takers among liberals or the broader left is an old discomfort about religion that has its origins in the Kemalist strain in the early history of the Indian republic. This strain has allowed little space in public discourse for a conservative religious voice that is not automatically dismissed as militant. In his constructive moods, Malhotra promises to be a conservative Hindu voice of this sort.

Malhotra’s provocations have not endeared him to Indian liberals, but those that read him will have the unsettling experience of finding many of their cherished heroes—Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and the whole tradition of postcolonialism—ranged against them. Many of Malhotra’s ideas are corollaries of the principles that animated the “identity politics” of American campuses of the 1990s, giving us departments of African American Studies where a large number of faculty were black. But any straightforward attempt to replicate such principles in Hindu studies will run up against the same problems of internal diversity that other such programs face.

In principle, the idea that accounts of religious traditions should be recognizable to adherents of those traditions is a matter of plain decency. But the varieties of Hindu practice are legion, and there is always the question of which Hindus an account should be recognizable to. Doniger herself has not publicly engaged with her conservative critics on the scholarly nitty-gritties, and claims to be rescuing the diversity of Hindu practice, particularly the heterodoxies of Dalits and others, from reductive conservative accounts. This claim might be true, but it has more authority when it comes from members of the heterodox traditions themselves rather than an American academic. But communities of the heterodox are least likely to have English-speaking, middle-class spokespersons with internet connections. As a result, the debate has failed go beyond predictable exchanges between conservative Hindus and their liberal opponents, both camps too homogeneous to speak with authority about the diversity that is the crux of the debate.

It hardly needs to be said that the debate between Doniger’s defenders and her critics is not a simple argument between Hindus and “anti-Hindus.” Doniger is not “doing a Katherine Mayo”—for one thing, she does not even set out to be a critic of Hinduism, only an opinionated chronicler with a certain (controversial) view of how best to describe its diversity. There are Hindus that see in her a pornographer motivated by malice and bad faith, and others who see in her an imaginative, provocative, and affectionate interlocutor. Her work, a veritable Rorschach blot, has become the site for different sorts of Hindus to contend over alternative visions of their traditions. The contrasting perceptions come from a more basic contrast in visions of what is basic to Hinduism: its apparent diversity or its unity, its narratives or its philosophy, its sensuousness or its intellectualism. This impasse—not the first in Hinduism’s long history of internecine dissension—will not be resolved with argument alone, and certainly not one artificially confined to questions of free speech.

The success of Doniger’s opponents in having her book withdrawn from the Indian market is not a simple triumph of bullying; at least in this case, their means were constitutional ones. Their success is, rather, the product of the slow accrual of power to an emigrant intelligentsia with its fact-checkers and open letters on the one hand, and an Indian vanguard with its legal notices and hurt sentiments on the other. Doniger’s liberal defenders need to confront the fact that her opponents too claim the moral and political high ground. Not for the first time, it looks like liberalism is awkward when confronted with the question of power, at a loss about what to say to those to whom liberty is not the highest value.

  1. There is a cruel irony to be noted in the structural parallels between claims by Dalits of a history of actual and cultural genocide at the hands of caste Hindus and claims by caste Hindus (who seldom self-identify in terms of their caste in these contexts) of a genocide at the hands of Muslims and the British. Both communities compare themselves to European Jews, and their rhetoric borrows a great deal from Zionism. The internet is rife with both kinds of polemical history, and the parallel—along with the recent history of Hindu mobilization on the internet—is one of the subjects of an illuminating monograph by the scholar Rohit Chopra, Technology and Nationalism in India: Cultural Negotiations from Colonialism to Cyberspace. 

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