February 14, 2014 / 1:17 PM / 5 years ago

Publisher Penguin warns of India's free speech curbs after withdrawing book on Hindus

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Freedom of expression is under threat in India, publisher Penguin Books India said on Friday, adding that it had little choice but to withdraw from sale a controversial book on Hinduism by a U.S. academic.

Penguin agreed in a Delhi court this week to recall all copies of the book and pulp them. The move triggered anger on social media and from writers and academics, rekindling a debate on freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.

The withdrawal comes just months ahead of a national election that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative Hindu nationalist party, is tipped to win.

“We believe that the Indian Penal Code ... will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law,” Penguin said in a statement.

The book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, takes an unorthodox view of Hinduism, which drew criticism from conservative Hindus and some scholars.

Penguin said it believed in every individual’s right to freedom of thought and expression, but a publishing company must respect the laws of the land “however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be”.

It added that it also had a duty to protect its employees against threats and harassment, suggesting it feared violence as well as legal challenges.

Seven petitioners in a 2011 complaint in a court case criticized the book for “heresies and factual inaccuracies” and said Doniger had a selective approach to writing about Hinduism.

They said she was incorrect in describing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization, which is close to the BJP, as the party’s militant wing.

They also said Doniger’s book, published in India in 2011, incorrectly tells readers the RSS was behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s freedom hero, who was shot dead by a former member of the organization.

Recent years have seen several instances of Hindu hardliners going on the attack against books or lifestyles they view as offensive or corrupting traditional Indian values.

In 2011, Delhi University dropped a scholarly text from its history syllabus after Hindu nationalist students vandalized the history department and complained that some bawdy references in the text offended beliefs about the life of the hero-god Rama.

Mumbai University took Indian-born Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel “Such A Long Journey” off its literature syllabus in 2010 after threats and book burnings by radical Hindu political party the Shiv Sena.

Doniger’s is not the first book to be banned in India. One notable instance is the 1988 novel by Salman Rushdie, “The Satanic Verses”, proscribed for a depiction of Islam that many Muslims consider to be blasphemous.

Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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