Publisher Penguin Friday blamed India’s “intolerant” laws for its decision to pull and pulp a book on Hinduism in the country that sparked a furious free speech row.
Days after agreeing to withdraw a 2009 book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” to settle a court battle, Penguin India insisted it was committed to free thought and expression.
But Penguin said it also “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,” its statement added.
Penguin drew fire from writers and champions of free speech over its decision on Monday to pull the book rather than fight the case, brought by an activist group which took offence to the depiction of the Hindu religion.
The book’s author, American scholar Wendy Doniger, said she was “angry and disappointed” all copies would be pulped in India, but she defended Penguin, part of the publishing giant Penguin Random House.
Doniger also said she was “deeply troubled” about what the decision meant for free speech in India.
Booker prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy this week called on Penguin to explain why it “caved” in to the academics even though there “was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order.”
In an open letter to Penguin, her own publisher, Roy said: “There will soon no doubt be protestors gathered outside your office, expressing their dismay.”
The Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee, a group of Hindu academics, filed civil and criminal suits in a New Delhi court claiming the book contained factual errors and parts of it misrepresented Hindu mythology.
In its statement, Penguin criticised a section of India’s criminal code that it said made it difficult for publishers in India to respect free speech without breaking the law.
The section “will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law,” it said.
“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,” it said.
The section relates to “deliberate and malicious acts” to outrage anyone by insulting their religion or religious beliefs, an offence that carries a maximum punishment of three years in jail.
Many authors and artists practise self-censorship in religiously diverse India, which is about 80 percent Hindu, due to tough laws against inciting communal violence and a powerful censor.
India banned Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” which is viewed by some Muslims as blasphemous.