ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Decriminalising Creative 'Offence'

Banning of books takes place in the name of reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Though these laws are of colonial times, they have been upheld through constitutional provisions on the ground of preventing hate speech. While limiting these restrictions to the narrowest possible circumstances of hate speech, it is necessary to draw juridical severance between academic, artistic and creative work, and hate speech, allowing absolute freedom to the former, while preventing the latter.

Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History has become another addition to the longlist of books either banned or withdrawn from circulation in India. This book was withdrawn as a result of the case filed by Dinanath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti against the author Wendy Doniger and the publisher Penguin India. The publisher entered into an agreement with the plaintiff to withdraw the book from circulation and stop publication in India, and, therefore, the case was not pursued further. Looking at the case from the plaintiff’s side, it is a standard allegation that the book hurts the sentiments of a particular community (in this case, the Hindus) and causes tension between communities (in this case, Hindus and non-Hindus). This is not unusual as it has happened in the past in respect of most of the books either banned or withdrawn.

What is unusual is that the publishers, Penguin India, succumbed, ostensibly, to the pressure of litigation, which it admirably withstood on some previous occasions. What would have been reasonable on the part of the publishers is the continuation of the litigation up to the highest court. This is not to argue that the publisher should defend the right of the authors to their freedom of speech and expression. But, it is the moral responsibility of the publishers to defend a legal case at least in favour of books which they accept to publish. However, what one can derive from this episode would be that defending authors’ right to express their opinion is for the individual author, and publishers cannot withstand, beyond a point, the considerations of market and political pressure.

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