First, they came for the writers. Legendary scribblers from James Joyce to Vladimir Nabokov once had their books banned in the United States and Canada. The 32nd edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the Catholic Church’s registry of banned books – included 4,000 titles, and was only abolished in 1966. There has been progress in protecting the right to free expression since then, but banning books is once again in vogue. Recently, Penguin India ordered all copies of an 800-page tome on Hindu history by the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger withdrawn and destroyed. The offence was the book’s “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”
A four-year legal battle launched by the nationalist Shiksha Bachao Andolan (“Movement to Save Education”) culminated in the book’s censorship. The legal notice charged that the book is “written with a Christian Missionary Zeal,” “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus” for stating that the Hindu God Ramayana “is a fiction,” and “is a shallow, distorted, and non-serious presentation of Hinduism.” According to section 295a of India’s nineteenth century penal code, offending religious sentiment is a crime. Penguin India lamented the censorship. India’s liberals deplored it. The vituperative right cheered it on.
India occupies a romantic place in the western mind. Clichés abound about the mysticism and profundity of India; about yogis, ashrams, shrines, saints, and gurus. “A fair land – a most beautiful land is this of Hind,” exclaims Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith reverently speaks of “the ancient state of Indostan.” “God is here,” Ms. Moore says in E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India while standing in a mosque, her words ventriloquized by the thousands of peace-seekers who go to India each year. Less widely known is the continuing assault on freethinking, writing and speaking in India by nativist Hindus, their tactics bellicose and their positions uncompromising.
Consider the recent record. Historian D.N. Jha’s history of beef consumption in ancient India (The Myth of the Holy Cow) was withdrawn by its publishers after the author received death threats. Jha cited copious archaeological and Hindu scriptural sources evidencing the presence of beef in the dietary traditions of Indians during the Vedic period. Professor James Laine’s book on Shivaji Bhosale, a seventeenth-century Hindu militant turned king, was withdrawn by Oxford University Press and banned, its author compelled to issue an apology. In 2004, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was ransacked by Hindu extremists, who damaged or destroyed some 18,000 volumes. In 2009, a former Indian foreign minister was expelled from his party for praising the founder of Pakistan in a book, which like a 2011 biography on Gandhi, was banned in the state of Gujarat.
These were all serious scholarly efforts taken to illuminate various corners of Indian history and politics. However, the quality of the texts is a secondary point – they could have been polemical pamphlets – for the freedom to speak requires the freedom to offend. As John Stuart Mill recognized, stifling any opinion, academic or inflammatory, by gavel or by gun, means potentially silencing truth. It means idolizing and dogmatizing our own professed beliefs. It is a double crime, for it criminalizes the right not just to speak, but the right to hear what others have to say. It is anti-democratic and especially unjustifiable in a democracy of one billion people with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups and thousands of different languages.
The men – and they are mostly men – behind these crusades are right-wing Hindu fundamentalists who subscribe to a worldview known as Hindutva or “Hinduness.” Their conception of India’s history is one of victimhood and military redemption against medieval Muslim invaders. Their philosophy transforms a capacious, decentralized Hinduism into a vitriolic political movement. They mobilize to ban books, intimidate opponents, and assault minorities. Their political organizations often have paramilitary wings. Accompanying their rhetoric is the threat and use of violence.
When speaking of Muslims, Hindutva leaders resemble the exclusivist dictators of Europe’s past, so keen on demonizing minorities as impure aliens polluting the native soil. M.S. Golwalkar, an early leader of a fanatical nativist group called the RSS and revered today on the Indian right, wrote: “The foreign races in Hindusthan must…learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of the glorification of Hindu race and culture.” The RSS salute is itself only a slight variant of the Nazi salute. Bal Thackeray, the founder of the chauvinistic and influential Shiv Sena party which has governed Mumbai for decades, was an admirer of Hitler and incited pogroms against Muslims and fellow Indians throughout his life. The leading contender to become prime minister of India this year, Narendra Modi, has been accused of allowing and even aggravating the anti-Muslim pogrom which swept through Gujarat – the state in which he was premier – in 2002 and left some 2,000 Muslims dead (courts have acquitted him of direct complicity, but investigations found that the riots were politically motivated by his party, and the U.S. State Department until this month denied him a visa because they held him responsible for allowing the massacre to proceed).
The nativist and exclusivist impulse is inherent among all nations, where invisible circumscriptions are drawn to define who belongs to the imagined community and who does not. Sometimes, these invisible lines become painfully and violently visible. The Hindu far right, through litigation, violence, and the ballot box, is moving to implement a dictatorship over the mind. Just as the writer Susan Sontag called communism “fascism with a human face,” India’s far-right movement should not be considered conservative, but reactionary. It is fascism with a Hindu face. As general elections near, ordinary Indians, and those in the diaspora, including over 1.5 million Indo-Canadians, must protest this movement and its reduction of India’s greatness to a bigoted bumper sticker.
Omer Aziz is a writer and journalist in Toronto, and recent Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University where he wrote a dissertation on India. He tweets @omeraziz12