Competing Representations

Nicole Goulet

T. Nicole Goulet is a Sessional Instructor at the University of Manitoba and Brandon University.  Having completed her Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba on textual representations of Sarada Devi, Dr. Goulet continues her research on the intersection of colonial politics and religious practice in India, with special reference to gender. After an online conversation about the recent Doniger/Penguin affair it was evident that she had something new to say about this episode and so we invited this post.

In the past few weeks, various groups, including scholars, media outlets, and members of the population at large, have weighed in on the Wendy Doniger/Penguin Publications case.  For those not in the know, Doniger’s almost 800 page tome, The Hindus, An Alternative History, will no longer be published by Penguin Books India nor sold in Indian book stores.  This after a four year legal battle with the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save Education Movement) spear-headed by Dinanath Batra, ended with the capitulation by Penguin Books before any court ruling was made. Media coverage has tended to focus on  the issue of freedom of speech in India, and the state of the publishing industry and liberal scholarship in general. Some Penguin authors currently published in India have requested their contracts be voided and their own publications pulped in similar fashion to The Hindus as protest. And on February 17th, the University of Chicago Divinity School sent a letter to the New York Times, signed by 43 various and unnamed scholars, as a defence of Doniger’s right to “freedom of scholarship and expression.”

Various media articles and opinion pieces have enthusiastically blamed, in no particular order, the corrupt Indian legal system, a powerful Hindu nationalist movement, and Penguin for not sticking it out for the long haul. But the consensus seems to be that Indian laws are threatening academic freedom of speech and therefore the academy itself, both in India and outside of it, and must be challenged; hence the spirited defence of Doniger’s work and her academic integrity.

Some questions that have not been adequately addressed in this response are, why have we chosen to focus on and defend Doniger’s work over and above others? Why has her work in particular been the catalyst that has compelled scholars both in India and without, to view this particular case as a threat to liberal scholarship as opposed to others? What gives her story traction, which others, apparently, do not have? The Hindus is not the first book to be banned in India, nor will it be the last. It is not even the first book to be banned which deals specifically with religion, for that matter. So what is it then?

As a scholar of Hinduism and an “outsider” (non-Indian descent), I am certainly concerned about my continuing ability to research and write about my field of expertise. Yet I’m also keenly aware of the fact that Western academics, such as Doniger and myself, have a freedom of scholarship and expression not afforded to writers who live and work in India itself (see Yogesh Master and his novel, Dhundi). The destruction of her work within India will not hamper her ability to continue her research, nor damage her career, or that of other Western scholars.

What is being contested is not necessarily academic freedom at all, but a particular representation of Hinduism. The scholars who have rallied to defend Doniger’s work emphasize that it is one of many, often competing, representations of Hinduism that should be accessible to academics and the public. But there is also the suggestion in all of this that Doniger’s rigorously scholarly representation is a “true” account of Hinduism, and that those populist politicians who rally against her work are agents of an “inauthentic” Hinduism. This representation of the academically disinterested  West as “true,” and nationalist Hindu East as “false,” have distressingly Orientalist resonances. They are also coupled with the assumption that the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, which is a subsidiary of the RSS and thus also tied to the political party BJP, is a powerfully corrupt minority, and not representative of the Indian people at large. But in fact, it is expected that the BJP will win the next election by a landslide.

Let me be clear here—I am not for the pulping of any books, whether I find them personally offensive or not. But I do think the Doniger/Penguin situation could better be understood if we recognize that what is at stake here is not simply the issue of academic freedom, but of a conflict between two competing discourses both backed by powerful interests, and both vying for exclusive legitimacy and authority. That media outlets in the West have clearly favored one discourse over another is not a surprise. Nor is it a surprise that the various polemical tropes used by both sides to justify their positions are so very predictable. (Doniger is represented by her opponents as a woman who is obsessed with sex and therefore a particularly egregious threat to Hinduism. Batra and the nationalist movement are represented by their critics as middle-class conservative, fundamentalist, and therefore incapable of understanding “true” Hinduism.) But to me the most distressing of the tropes we see being recycled is the oldest one, the colonialist claim that once again the rational West must save the irrational East from itself.

I do not seek to undermine scholarly and academic freedoms by making these observations, and the thought that Doniger has received death threats is horrifying. However, I do think it important to recognize that just as the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti is seeking to protect a particular Hindu identity, so too are a large number of the Western respondents to the Doniger/Penguin case, and that a preoccupation with issue of academic freedom, might unnecessarily obscure this important line of contestation.