Indian readers sue Penguin for copyright to book that is to be pulped due to religious fundamentalists' campaign


#1

[Permalink]


#2

I think the pulping of the book is outrageous, but I blame the criminal blasphemy law and the people who made the complaint rather than Penguin. Penguin made a rational decision based on the law.

Trying to get the publisher to transfer copyright is an interesting idea, but does their contract with the author allow that? What does the author want?

(Edited to remove reference to murder over accusations of blasphemy - I was thinking of Pakistan (and I wish Discourse had Strikethrough as a formatting option.))


#3

They could have fought harder (say, waiting for any actual judicial proceeding at all, rather than just acting on the complaint); but it is hard to blame the publisher for failing to win when there's a 'no doing anything that makes somebody butthurt about religion' law on the books.

Such laws (while almost always selectively enforced against minorities, so there probably are plenty of religions that Penguin could publish about in India without a peep), don't leave you much room to maneuver once somebody has decided to stifle you. (Which is why they are so invidious, even when couched in the language of encouraging civility and harmony and whatnot, they are in practice a veto, not an assurance of politeness).

If I were Penguin, I'd be inclined to issue a 'You change your stupid law, and we'll run a special addition in your honor. Until then, try importing from a free country.' statement and leave it at that.

(on the other hand, this is probably why I'm not the public face of any organizations...)


Why your local record store employee became an asshole
#4

Yeah, minorities suck specially when they are not us.


#5

The census data aren't fantastic, and date from 2001; but India is on the order of 80% Hindu. Which minorities did you have in mind?


#6

Everyone which doesn't share our views of what is fun. Let's call them un-FUN-da-MENTAL-ists.


#7

This is an interesting take on the story, but I think NPR had a much better report about the controversy, and in particular Penguin Publishing and Wendy Doniger's take on the result of the lawsuit. As she said,

[Penguin India] were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece—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.

Specifically, Doniger and Penguin India had no really doubt that they would lose the criminal case, and yet they fought it for four years, and that the book remains available in India, including by importation from Penguin New York.


#8

I'm going to be a bit off topic - trying to clarify the original incident rather than the copyright handover demand (I don't see why Penguin would possibly agree to that…) (Also, apparently people think of India and Pakistan, Hinduism and Islam all as a jumble "somewhere over there", so perhaps this will help in that respect too… smile )

So… It would be simple to just blame religious fundamentalists, but this is a rather more complex situation, with faults on both sides.

The book in question was published in 2009 and rather immediately caused significant opposition in India from Hindu traditionalists (fundamentalism denotes a rather higher level of dogmatism than apparent in this incident), including a petition to get it banned and a lawsuit, though as far as I know there was no violence or death threats or anything of that sort. The lawsuit had been working its way through the court, but Penguin recently opted for an out-of-court settlement and withdrew the book. The petition and lawsuit pointed out several factual errors in the book, as well as several claims of cultural insensitivity and "offending religious sentiments". Unfortunately, there is a law in India against statements or acts that can cause such offense. If you want, you can read one of the original petitions here. There are certainly also mischaracterization of Hinduism in the petition, as well as several instances of naive literal faith in historical descriptions.

On the other hand, Wendy Doniger and many - though not all - other Indic religions scholars in the Western world have been engaging in what one could only call academic malpractice. Apart from lazy errors such as mistranslations (often from not having knowledge of the languages in question!), cherry-picking and rearranging texts to suite desired conclusions, their work has repeatedly exhibited strong cultural imperialism, eurocentrism, and presentism; baseless speculation presented as serious analysis; and, heaven help us - use of Freudian psychoanalysis to interpret historical texts, religious icons, and personalities.

How this is presented seriously as premier academic scholarship I have no idea. If these people tried to pull something similar with Hebrew, Greek, or Latin texts, I'm sure they would be laughed out of the room! If I were Penguin, I would have withdrawn the book out of sheer embarrassment over the questionable "scholarship", regardless of any legal or social pressures.

An understanding of classical Indian society in the 1st millennium CE would be a very useful asset for the modern world. Before the influence of the zealous Islamic invaders and then Puritanical British rulers, India was a far less authoritarian, dogmatic, and repressive society. These are the people that brought us the Kama Sutra, Atheism/Materialism as a serious alternative to theistic philosophies, Khajuraho temples (look it up, NSFW!), in addition to the mathematical zero, plastic surgery, astronomy and many other intellectual and cultural achievements.

Such a society, though indubitably with its own flaws, could serve as one of the positive reference points if we want to construct a more ethical and egalitarian world. It behooves us to try to develop the best possible fact-based understanding of this society through academic inquiry. Unfortunately, Doniger's book, and others by researchers like her (many trained by her) fall laughably short of such objective scholarship.

I will leave you with link to an article by someone more qualified to comment on this matter than me -

Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong! - "Wendy Doniger (1) falsely and unfairly brands all of her critics as right-wing Hindutva fundamentalists, and (2) grossly mischaracterizes (and misquotes) the text of the Valmiki Ramayana" - Oct 2009, right after this book was published.

(There are more illuminating articles on this topic, but being a new member, apparently I can only post two links.)


#9

That quote you cited... If that's true, I gotta say burn the whole fucking place to the ground.

I can't stand the religious deciding out of their "wisdom" (read: inflexible tradition based on wanting to believe something specific from presupposition rather than true things supported by evidence and science) deciding what's good for the rest of us. If you get butthurt about some mean agnostic, or atheist, or xtian, or muslim, or zoro-astrian, or animist, or whateverthefuck, says, that's YOUR OWN DAMNED PROBLEM, not the government's.

It's your problem with what an individual said and believes. And if you can't at least respect people's autonomy to believe, then you don't deserve the autonomy to believe yourself. I'm an atheist, but I will defend to the death anyone's right to believe in whatever horseshit religion they choose. Which doesn't mean I'll respect their belief, or respect what they do in relation to that belief. I would make life hell for xtian scientists if they were around. I'd make fun of them and ask them why all their children are dying. And call the cops on them when I hear a kid coughing next door for two weeks, etc.

I'll ridicule as many religions as I can till the day I die. But I won't threaten anyone with harm and abuse for believing what they will. "you aren't stupid. What you believe in is VERY stupid. And you are being stupid for believing it without careful examination and thought. But you aren't stupid. Just acting stupidly."


#10

The irony being that these are not destined to be burned in hellishly decreed fire but pulped for reincarnation as other books.


#11

Here we go. "Cultural insensitivity" in my opinion is code for "it offends some people". And "offending religious sentiments" means "what the bad man said makes me wanna go poopie." They're unacceptable reasons to outlaw literally anything. If there's any physical harm that comes from anyone being offended, it's always on the part of the offended doing something that causes harm to someone else. The offended party can't be justified hurting someone's body or discriminating against them just because "I don't like the bad man's words". That's a feeble and disgusting defense and doesn't belong in a modern, thinking society. If it can be justified through reason that an individual hurt someone because they were made to, that's a different story. But, "I got mad" is only a good reason to lock them up.

Censorship is obscene. I deal with hundreds of things that offend me deeply every single day, yet I don't hurt a fly. I let them buzz. And I'm happy to let them buzz. Whats wrong with everyone else?!


#12

Technically, criminal libel, not blasphemy.

The legal question is whether libel can be used in this case at all; the complaints were against stuff that's been scholarly opinion for decades, and in any case, libel laws are really not meant to be used for religion.

But Penguin chickened out...


#13

Whole damn thing started with the Satanic Verses case. So, as far as India is concerned, it started with protecting the minorities.

That doesn't change much btw. It was wrong then, it's wrong now.


#14

It does.

Watch this space.


#15

Penguin India fought the case for 4 years before exhausting all appears in the Indian courts. The new option they are going to try is importing the book from Penguin US since the ruling only applies to Penguin India.


#16

I like the part where you clutch your pearls and say "Oh, but if someone was as sloppy as this on Hebrew, or Greek, or Roman literature, oh boy, they'd get in trouble," because, you imply, this is just more oppression of brown people, eurocentrism plain and simple. Look, where do you think all the sloppy hackwork of Freudianism and an Eliade-type loose mythographic interpretation of religion started? With those three religions, you silly goose.

So, let's just cut to the chase: you are offended that someone dares to approach Hinduism as if it were not a sacred cow, and you cite an article that basically says "Doniger sucks, and she's a big old sacrilegious whore." Well, ok. But pretty much ALL of the anglophone humanities since about 1907 has been sacrilegious, and we've been pretty positive on our "whores" for the last few decades. If you want to hang around in some latter-day, postcolonial prudery, rock it. But don't pretend that what you're up to isn't good old fashioned, tight-assed censorship. Criticism leaves the original work in print. Bookburning doesn't.


#17

If you're actively using a law to ban a book because it contains what you consider to be factual errors, you are an extremist. You are attempting to legislate correctness into peoples heads rather than argue it through reason.


#18

I don't know al the details, but according to Wikipedia, there are three main different traditions of Hinduism, plus various sub-denominations. I'm not an expert, but it isn't hard for me to believe that some of them may be as different as Episcopalians and Assembly of God are in the United States, and there may even be some smaller groups as radical as the Westboro Baptist Church, so there could well be minority Hindus.


#19

Well, I will now seek out this book on t'interwebs and read it, so there!


#20

I know you're using it as a metaphor, but flies suck. I want a laser cannon that automatically tracks and kills any flies in my vicinity.

It sounds like the law in India is exactly the type of law that Christian fundamentalists would love to have in the US. Biased so that it only applies to offending Christians of course.