Tyranny of the Troll Reviewer

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The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book reflects the increasing influence of the hyper-critic who reads not for pleasure or knowledge, but to spot offensiveness
This isn’t about history. It rarely is. It’s about a perceived threat to some good old self-fashioning. And it’s also about extreme book reviewing.

There’s a particular sensibility that we very rarely encounter in contemporary book reviews. Unlike in movie reviews where a perfectly respectable critic will pan a film for its depiction of, say, nudity or violence, you don’t find a book review trash a book for being offensive any more.

A negative review can be critical of the author’s style, of the way he has laid out the book’s contents through faulty aesthetics, and if it is dealing with a work of non-fiction, through incorrect facts or shoddy reasoning. But apart from a few cases, usually dealing with politics—say, when historical biases are perceived to portray a certain community or a public figure in critical light—the reviewer usually does not have ‘being offended’ as one of the arrows in his quiver.

But there’s another kind of critic who has been plying his trade as a group activity. This is not a sophisticated responder to flaws or virtues of texts, but someone who takes notice of things broadly, stripped of everything but its utilitarian features and its effects on what he believes to be that particularly defenceless creature that constantly needs defending: society, and its even more vulnerable sister, culture.

This breed of hyper-critic not only finds offensive material in a book or in an artwork or in a movie—the last two forms being relatively easy to quickly gauge and judge—but wants the work to be removed from the face of the earth. Unlike the mainstream reviewer, this second-variety of critic is very rarely a reader—in the sense of ‘a person who reads’ rather than ‘a person who can read’—never mind an expert reader. And if he writes, it’s only when filing complaints in courts seeking the book’s destruction.

His relationship with a text is that of a neighbourhood resident with a park or a structure. If he encounters it, he chooses to either take its utilitarian value for granted, or finds it ‘offensive’ and wants it razed. If you didn’t expect from this citizen-reviewer just a blistering architectural critique of an early 16th century mosque or of a pair of 6th century Buddhist statues, don’t expect him to restrict himself to dissuading people from reading what he considers a bad book. If he finds it ‘offensive’, he wants the book obliterated.

Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History has been faulted on a few counts. Even as I, a lay reader, discovered much precious information and a coherent argument in the philologist- historian’s book, I also found Doniger’s style a bit too glib. With lines such as, ‘The [Sanskrit] medium is not always the message’ and ‘For such a person, moksha is just another word for nothing left to lose’ accompanying the footnotes, ‘To invoke Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase’ and ‘To paraphrase Janis Joplin’ respectively, the book has this running nudge- nudge wink-wink thing going that I found more than a bit ‘undergraduate’.

But did I find The Hindus offensive? Like, say, public urination or an inedible meal? No, I didn’t. But then, I don’t count as a critical reader as the offensiveness of the book lies elsewhere, outside the confines of the text.

Clearly, Dina Nath Batra, the convenor of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, along with five other worthies who filed criminal and civil cases against Doniger and the publishers Penguin USA and Penguin India in 2011, did find The Hindus vile enough to demand its permanent disappearance. Batra had stated that this was a book ‘written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light’.

Doniger’s crime seems to have been her investigations and descriptions of the beliefs and practices of people who broadly became known as Hindus over the centuries who don’t fall in the mainstream hegemonic category of ‘high-caste and male Hindu’. This, to my mind, isn’t dissimilar to someone writing an alternative history of Indian cinema and focusing on the considerable history of non-Hindi and/or non- Bollywood movies.

But we know that Batra is essentially what in internet jargon is a troll— someone who submits a deliberately provocative posting to an online message board with the aim of inciting an angry response. Except that the angry response is elicited from others like him who, invested with lobbying powers that the courts strangely attest to, are on a mission to save a ‘religion’, ‘culture’ and ‘nation’ in distress. Critiquing alone will not do for hyper-critics. Even burning the book is leaving matters dangerously incomplete. To continue the online metaphor, Batra and his ilk wanted the ‘web page’ and ‘links’ removed. This, the court has duly allowed.

Not many of us like reassuring narratives about a Golden Age to be tampered with. Doniger uses textual material, which she translated herself from Sanskrit, as well as oral records to portray what is announced as the subtitle of her book on the cover, ‘An alternative history’.

As she writes in the introduction: ‘The Brahmins did produce a great literature, after all, but they did not compose it in a vacuum. They did not have complete authority or control the minds of everyone in India. They drew upon, on the one hand, the people who ran the country, political actors (generally Brahmins and kings, but also merchants) and, on the other hand, the non-literate classes. Because of the presence of oral and folk traditions in Sanskrit texts, as well as non-Hindu traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism, Dog Cookers [‘Shva-Pakas’] do speak, not always in voices recorded on a page but in signs that we can read if we try.’

And it’s Doniger’s readings of these voices, which she shares with the reader, that infuriated the troll-reviewers. Especially, as always, when pertaining to matters of sex.

One can sense the horror of the complainants when they ran their fingers over her lines:

‘The Sanskrit texts [cited in Doniger’s lecture on 12 November 2003 in London where a man threw an egg at her after she had cited from Valmiki’s Ramayana in which Sita accuses Lakshmana of wanting her for himself] were written at a time of glorious sexual openness and insight, and I have often focused on precisely those parts of the texts... The irony is that I have praised these texts and translated them in such a way that many people outside the Hindu tradition—people who would otherwise go on thinking that Hinduism is nothing but a caste system that mistreats Untouchables—have come to learn about it and to admire the beauty, complexity and wisdom of Hindu texts.’

Clearly, those who’ve managed to force Doniger’s book into exile don’t like the idea of sexual openness being part of the history of their cultural tradition.

One of the charges against Doniger had been that the author’s approach ‘has been jaundiced, [her] approach is that of a woman hungry [for] sex’. More outrage follows when Doniger writes about the Shiv linga in Freudian- iconographical terms. In fact, she presages the attack against her while investigating the 3rd century BCE Gudimallam linga in Andhra Pradesh in a passage: ‘...some Hindus who see the linga as an abstract symbol therefore object to the interpretation of those who view it anthropomorphically; their Christian counterparts would be people who refuse to acknowledge that the cross ever referred to the passion of Christ... We need to be aware of both the literal and symbolic levels simultaneously...”

To this view, the hyper-reviewers have no counter-argument based on any specialised knowledge of Hindu religious iconography or anthropological history. They are uninterested in this whole line of thinking, summing it up in their petition: ‘[Doniger] should be aware that in Hinduism, the linga is an abstract symbol of God with no sexual connotations’ and that the author ‘emphasizes only those texts which portray [the] linga as [an] erect male sexual organ... This shows your shallow knowledge of the Great Hindu religion and also your perverse mindset.’

The complainants also had a grievous problem with the cover of the book. It depicts Nari Aswa (Woman- Horse), which, as the website selling prints from a gallery in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, informs us, is a contemporary decorative mural from Odisha based on traditional paintings showing ‘frolicsome gopis, in order to bemuse their divine lover, Sri Krishna, form a human horse and become lost in their game and intoxicating music from the flute of Love’.

But once this colourful art work adorns an American (Christian) historian’s book, it becomes, as recorded in the court complaint: ‘Lord Krishna... shown sitting on [the] buttocks of a naked woman surrounded by other naked women’.

That itself must have sounded suitably dodgy for the Saket district court, which ordered Doniger’s publisher to make the book vanish within six months from the country.

What has all this to do with history again? Nothing.

A website carrying a news feature based on the removal of The Hindus ‘from everyone’s sight’ had a reader leave the following comment: ‘Currently Indians are not nationalists like the developed countries like US, Germany, Japan, etc, where people are really patriotic. Only a nation with patriotic people can become a developed one. So to stop India becoming a superpower, one of the methods is to defame the Indian/Hindu culture by printing completely misinterpreted facts, so that the Indian masses are ashamed of themselves and not proud of their country and still remain underdeveloped and given an opportunity will get out of the country. There is an author’s lobby in US trying to do this.’

So not only is Doniger a sex maniac flipping pages of ancient Hindu texts the way teenagers hunt for dirty words in the dictionary, but she is also a CIA agent injected into the academic and publishing system to stop India from becoming a veritable Ram Rajya at a particularly interesting pre-election juncture.

Doniger has pointed out that for the destruction of The Hindus in India, there is specifically one law to blame: Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’.

I’m not so sure about that. While the thrust of the legal complaint was indeed ‘offending Hindu sentiments’, other laws, such as Section 292 of the IPC dealing with ‘obscenity’ that can ‘tend to deprave and corrupt people who are likely... to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in [a book],’ can be corralled for the same purpose.

And making books disappear is hardly the monopoly of politically motivated right-wing Hindu brand-building. In 1988, fearing Muslim outrage after excerpts of the book were carried in a news magazine, the Finance Ministry of the Congress Government under Rajiv Gandhi prohibited the import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses under Section 11 of the Customs Act. The import ban applied to the publisher Penguin India; it could not ‘bring’ the text of the novel from the UK. Luckily for us, the novel is available on Kindle.

More recently, former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel successfully threatened Bloomsbury India with libel and made the publisher withdraw The Descent of Air India by former Air India Executive Director Jitender Bhargava from the market. Sahara India chief Subroto Roy has gone one step beyond by slapping a Rs 200 crore defamation suit against Tamal Bandyopadhyay, whose Sahara: The Untold Story remains untold, thanks to an additional high court order that disallows Jaico from publishing the book. Back in 1988, Hamish McDonald wrote The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, which HarperCollins India acquired rights to publish. But the Ambanis threatened legal action and the book is now only available in India at Mumbai traffic crossings in a poorly printed pirated form.

So whether it is religious groups or powerful individuals, making books disappear is about controlling the narrative and covering a brand with protective latex. Why liberal Indians allow such a trend to continue is simple: because they don’t really think it’s worth their while to defend a book that is seen to upset this balance of power. After the initial liberal outrage, the ‘What’s the need to upset anyone?’, reasoning sets in.

In July last year, Fox News conducted an interview with the writer and scholar of religions Reza Aslan. The anchor’s infamous line of questioning on why Aslan, an Iranian-American Muslim, wrote Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, a book about a Jew who founded the Christian faith, left people not only fuming but also guffawing. I, for one, picked up the book and was gratified by my decision to learn about Christ as one of many other competing radical figures in Judaea in the context of the politics of the Roman Empire of his time.

I had then mentioned how ridiculous it was for the Fox journalist to keep asking Aslan why he, a Muslim, wrote the book. (His answer throughout the interview was “Because I am a scholar who is interested in this subject.”) ‘It’s like a news anchor here demanding to know why Wendy Doniger, an American Christian scholar, wrote The Hindus: An Alternative History,’ I had quipped.

Now that I’ve been reminded again of the power that the troll-reviewer out there has over our lib-leg-lit (liberal- legal-literary) establishment, I’m not chuckling any more.

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata