Penguin India has defended its decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger's The Hindus from sale, saying a specific section of India's penal code is making it "increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law."
The publisher had agreed not to distribute the book in India in an out of court settlement with campaign group Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which argued that it was insulting to Hindus.
In an open letter in the Times of India, Man Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, a Penguin India author, had claimed the publisher had “humiliated” itself by the action, referencing its record in supporting Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. She said: “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?”
The publisher was also accused of "surrender" by Silal Tripathi, writing for Index on Censorship. "Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel,” Tripathi wrote.
In a newly issued statement, Penguin India said: "Penguin Books India believes, and has always believed, in every individual’s right to freedom of thought and expression, a right explicitly codified in the Indian Constitution. This commitment informs Penguin’s approach to publishing in every territory of the world, and we have never been shy about testing that commitment in court when appropriate. At the same time, a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can.
"The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.
"We stand by our original decision to publish The Hindus, just as we stand by the decision to publish other books that we know may cause offence to some segments of our readership. We believe, however, 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.
"This is, we believe, an issue of great significance not just for the protection of creative freedoms in India but also for the defence of fundamental human rights."
Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code concerns "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs", making the offence punishable by imprisonment as well as by financial penalties.
Commenting in The Guardian, historian William Dalrymple said: "The reality is that it is very difficult to defend yourself because the law is stacked very heavily on the side of any lunatic. It's shocking, appalling, dreadful and entirely negative, but I can understand why Penguin did what it did. They should have defended it, but I can understand why, with the law as it is, they decided they couldn't win the case."