Book sympathetic to Dalits and women recalled

Outcry as Penguin India pulps 'alternative' history of Hindus

Novelist Arundhati Roy leads chorus of protest after publisher settles lawsuit brought by militant group

Jason Burke in Delhi, Thursday 13 February 2014 23.12 GM

Conservative activists in India have pledged to continue their campaign to purge bookshelves and schools of works they say are abusive to Hinduism, as a fierce row over a 700-page academic work on the faith intensified on Thursday.

Penguin Books India agreed this week to withdraw from sale and pulp all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History, by the US-based academic Wendy Doniger, as part of a settlement after a group of Hindu conservative nationalists filed a case against the publisher.

"We are going to fight each and every example of this. We will leave nothing unchallenged that is against our customs, our religion, our nation," said Prakash Sharma, spokesman for the hardline Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) organisation, one of a series of conservative religious groups in India that aggressively campaign against artists and authors who they believe malign or misrepresent Hinduism.

Penguin's decision not to fight the case has worried many authors, and revealed deep cultural divisions. Arundhati Roy, who won the Booker prize in 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things, said she was shocked by Penguin's decision and uncertain whether to stay with the publisher. "So far I have had been more than happy to be published by Penguin. But now? What you have done affects us all," Roy wrote.

An editorial in the Times of India condemned "the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors" displaying "a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament".

Advaita Kala, a screenwriter and novelist, said: "It's very intimidating to be a writer in India. There is almost no legal protection. We are left almost completely on our own. And the worst offenders are not the fringe groups but the politicians." International authors have also expressed concerns.

Sharma refused to say whether his group was formally linked to Dinanath Batra, the educationalist who started the campaign against the book in 2011, as has been reported in the Indian press. Batra heads a group that campaigns to force educational authorities to remove "objectionable" passages from school textbooks and drop entire works from university reading lists.

Batra has also launched legal actions against sex education in schools, which he says is against Hindu culture, and against a magazine article about Hindu militancy. The 84-year-old former teacher has said he will now try to force the withdrawal of a second book by Doniger.

In the withdrawn work, Doniger, 73, a professor at the University of Chicago divinity school, emphasises the importance of women, sexuality and those at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy in Hinduism. The book drew criticism from conservative Hindus and some scholars when it was published in 2010, but also received many positive reviews.

Batra's complaint against Doniger accused her of being motivated by a "Christian missionary zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus". She was "a woman hungry of sex", it said, and claimed the book was "riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies".

Religious conservatives and other hardliners in India have made frequent use of laws, many dating from the colonial era, that critics say fail to adequately protect artists and researchers.

In 2003, a book on the Hindu god Ganesh by one of Doniger's students was withdrawn after pressure from conservatives. In 2006, the painter MF Husain fled India after a show of nude Indian gods and goddesses led to a charge of "hurting the sentiments of the people". In 2010, a university in Mumbai was forced to drop a work by the Indian author Rohinton Mistry, and the ruling Congress party tried to suppress a biography of Sonia Gandhi they claimed was inaccurate.

This latest row is taking place at a time of high tension. Elections must be held before May and will pit the Congress party, hit by corruption scandals and flagging economic growth, against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi.

The legal notice against Penguin accused Doniger of incorrectly describing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India's largest Hindu nationalist organisation, as the BJP's militant wing, and wrongly telling readers that the RSS was behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The RSS pre-dates the BJP by many decades, and the killer of Gandhi was a former but not serving RSS activist. The notice says a judicial commission had exonerated the RSS of any complicity in the murder.

This row has added significance as the election nears. Modi, who consistently tops opinion polls, joined the RSS as a child and spent decades in its service.

Roy wrote: "The elections are still a few months away. The fascists are, thus far, only campaigning. Yes, it's looking bad, but they are not in power. Not yet. And you've already succumbed?"

Mainstream politicians have largely avoided commenting on the row. Balbir Punj, a vice-president of the BJP, who is seen as close to Modi, said that in principle books should not be banned. "Hinduism [and] India believes in an open discussion. None should be banned. But there needs to be a uniform principle for everybody, not double standards."

Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which many Muslims deemed blasphemous, remains proscribed in India, and an appearance by the author at the Jaipur literary festival in 2012 was cancelled for security reasons after Muslim organisations protested.

In a statement, Doniger said she was "deeply troubled … for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate" but also "glad that, in the age of the internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book."

Shortly after news broke of the withdrawal, The Hindus had reached 33 on Amazon's bestseller list, and topped the Hinduism section. Penguin refused to comment on Thursday.

Case highlights racism and discrimination against indigenous minorities from India's north-east

India protest over student 'hate crime' death in Delhi

Hundreds of people have protested in Delhi against the beating and subsequent death of a university student from north-eastern India.

Officials say 21-year-old Nido Tania was beaten on Wednesday by shopkeepers who had ridiculed his appearance. He died the next day.

Two people have been taken into custody.

The case has highlighted racism and discrimination against indigenous minorities from India's north-east.

The Delhi police have been accused of being slow to respond to the assault on Mr Tania, who was reportedly on holiday in the Indian capital.

Protesters, many of them students, gathered outside a police station on Saturday near where Mr Tania was attacked in the south Delhi suburb of Lajpat Nagar.

He was the son of a member of the Arunachal Pradesh state assembly.

Indigenous people from India's north-east, who are ethnically closer to people in Burma and China, often say they encounter racism and discrimination in the rest of the country.

Harappa Civilisation not violence free

Research at Appalachian State University USA indicates that there seems to be clear signs of internal and structured violence within what had previously been thought to be a ‘perfect‘ and peaceful society.

The picture above is of the ruins at Mohenjodaro in Sindh another of Indus major cities.

This pattern can conservatively be interpreted as evidence for social hierarchy at Harappa, but it appears likely that structural violence—unequal power, uneven access to resources, systematic oppression, and outright violence—also existed here.

Full story at


Caste Discrimination to be outlawed by Equality Bill

Caste discrimination is to be outlawed in the UK, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced in what is a U-turn on previous government policy.

The House of Lords has voted twice for legal protection to be given to the estimated 400,000 Dailts - so-called untouchables - who live in the UK.

MPs overturned the first Lords vote, but after peers again backed the plan on Monday, there has been a rethink.

Mr Cable said caste would in future be treated as "an aspect of race".

Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said: "We are delighted that the government has accepted that discrimination against caste should enjoy the same statutory protection as all other forms of protected characteristics.

"This is a victory for the Lords and their emphasis on protecting human rights."

Campaigners had said legislation was needed because thousands of people suffered abuse and prejudice because they were considered low caste.

They said existing laws offered no protection and said caste divided society unfairly, with those at the bottom expected to do dirty, poorly paid work while also being expected to - and forced to - look up to and respect higher castes.

Those arguing for action said such discrimination was outlawed in India and should be banned in Britain too.

In the House of Commons debate earlier this month the government acknowledged the existence of caste discrimination in Britain.

But equalities minister Jo Swinson told MPs: "This is an issue that is contained in the Hindu and Sikh communities. That's why we are working with those communities to address these problems."

She warned of concern that legislation could increase stigma rather than ease the problem and said that was why the government favoured tackling caste prejudice through an education programme instead.

During the debate many MPs backed the protestors.

Conservative MP Richard Fuller said: "This is a straightforward issue, caste discrimination in the work place is wrong and the people who suffer from it deserve legal protection. That's it. Beginning and end."

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said that caste discrimination was "completely unacceptable".

The government has asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to examine the nature of caste prejudice and harassment, and consider what other action might be helpful.

The commission will publish its findings later in 2013.

Outlaw Caste Discrimination say Lords

Stamping out the caste system

Touching the untouchable

BRITAIN'S House of Lords defends its role as upper chamber of Parliament by pointing to the extraordinary breadth of knowledge within its ranks: these days a colourful mixture of political appointees, Anglican prelates and scions of ancient families. The claim has grown more plausible since the elevation of some prominent figures from ethnic minorities, such as Baroness Flather (pictured above), who comes from a Hindu background but is now active in the British humanist movement. At a debate this week on stamping out caste discrimination among Asian-origin people in Britain, she spoke with grim and impressive frankness about the situation in her homeland. At the time of Indian independence in 1947, she recalled, there was a mood of optimism about the prospects for equality.

"There was a great hope that the caste system would die out. It has not done so but has got worse. People have killed their own children because they have married a person in a different caste. There are organisations in Delhi that find and bring back young people who run away from their villages to escape the wrath of their parents. They pick them up and bring them to their parents who have them killed. It is horrible."

She was speaking in support of a successful move by some distinguished lords to defy the government by insisting that caste-based discrimination be included in Britain's equality legislation. An amendment to that effect was approved by 256 votes to 153; for the change to become law, it will need to be approved by the House of Commons as well. The government has acknowledged that the country's 480,000 citizens whose background is Dalit (the group formerly known as untouchables) face discrimination, albeit not usually of the ghastly sort described by Lady Flather. But the current government line is that a campaign of education will deal with the problem. After this week's moral victory, lobby groups that defend the interests of the British Dalits are now determined to convince the government that a change in the law is essential.

So what sort of disadvantage is a Dalit likely to face in Britain? One well-publicised case concerns a young couple in the Midlands town of Coventry, both of whom were lawyers working for an Asian-run practice. Vijay Begraj, a Dalit, and his wife Amardeep, from a higher caste, said their bosses objected to their inter-caste marriage, and made life unpleasant; he claims he was unfairly dismissed. Their case has foundered on a technicality but a change in the legislation would revive it. Sat Pal Muman, chairman of the lobby group Caste Watch UK, says he knows of equally insidious but subtler cases, falling short of dismissal. His wife once worked for a small Asian-run manufacturing firm where she incurred hostility, and was excluded from the kitchen, when she declined to say what her caste background was. As a result she left the firm. 

In their debate, the well-informed and multicultural nobles cited many other cases. Lord Harries, a retired Anglican bishop who moved the amendment, said he knew an Indian-born medical technician, working for Britain's National Health Service, whose "life was made hell" by an Asian boss after questions arose over his family background. The aggrieved man's trade union said it was not possible under the present law to bring a case for discrimination on caste grounds. Lord Singh of Wimbledon, a Sikh, quoted the founder of his faith as saying: "Ask not a person's caste but look to the inner light within."  He added: "While I have the greatest respect for a sister faith, I believe that Hinduism without the old-fashioned concept of caste will be infinitely stronger. Similar negative cultural clutter exists in all our different faiths." Lord Deben, a Tory convert to Catholicism, demanded to know: "Is it right that a person who is a subject of Her Majesty in this country shall not be able to claim against discrimination when they would be able to in India, Nepal or indeed in Bangladesh?"

The laws and constitutions of south Asian countries are not, in practice, enough to provide the Dalits with the protection they desperately need. But changing the law and practices in Britain—whose colonial yoke is sometimes blamed, rightly or wrongly, for exploiting and exacerbating India's social divisions—would be a good start.