The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

By Drew Thomases

Earlier this year, Penguin Books India agreed to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from publication. The petition by Dina Nath Batra and his Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (“Committee for the Struggle to Save Education”) argues that the book is a “shallow, distorted and non serious presentation of Hinduism” written with the intent “to ridicule, humiliate & defame the Hindus.” Doniger’s effort to present a different narrative about Hinduism—with emphases on women, sexuality, animals, and untouchables—is admittedly selective, though Batra finds her approach both offensive, and more shockingly, suggestive of “a woman hungry of sex.” Ad hominems notwithstanding, offense is enough to stir things up. Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code holds culpable those who might insult or attempt to insult any religion or religious belief with the intention of hurting someone’s “religious feelings.” Under threats of a criminal case brought against the author and publisher, Penguin buckled.

Much digital ink has been spilt on the subject, some attacking Batra’s position and Penguin’s milquetoast decision, others defending the petition, and a few taking on the Penal Code itself. Wendy Doniger penned her own reply, and by now most have drawn their lines in the sand. For me, the Doniger debate has brought to mind a very different book, one which has seen incredible popularity in India, and which unlike The Hindus, faces little danger of being pulled and pulped: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This situation—Doniger nowhere, Hitler everywhere—provides an unusual vision of India’s current political landscape.*

Waiting for my train in New Delhi Railway Station, I glance over some of the titles at the bookstall near platform #16. Next to Fifty Shades of Grey and resting gently on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a book with a blood-red cover, and the world’s most infamous mustache. “What’s this about?” I ask, pointing to Mein Kampf. “Oh this,” the vendor says, “this is a really good book, a bestseller.”

For those who have spent time in India, this should come as no surprise. Mein Kampf is remarkably visible, not only because its availability spans from tiny bookstall to mega-vendor across the subcontinent, but also because it is often piled so high—like pancakes stacked and going fast. Even at the book tent of Jaipur’s now-famous Literature Festival, no less than twenty copies of Hitler’s tome burdened the shelves. According to an article from 2009, Jaico Publishing House—one of several purveyors of Mein Kampf in India—sold upwards of 15,000 copies each year in Delhi alone. Moreover, the reading audience extends beyond the English language; translations of Mein Kampf are now available in Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam.

Why the popularity? One of the more prominent answers seems to be a perception of Hitler’s leadership skills and undying patriotism. The Times of India conducted a poll in 2002, finding that among students in elite institutions across the country, 17% favored Hitler as the kind of leader India ought to have. Just this April, All India Radio News posted a story on Facebook about the recent developments surrounding the Führer’s wife, Eva Braun, and her possibly Jewish ancestry. Civilization would perhaps crumble if we were to read too much into Facebook comments, but some of these are illuminating: “People may hate him but remember one thing[:] whatever he did was for his motherland”; “except his genocide he was a grt patriot”; “Hitler had a great love for his country n he sacrificed his life for his motherland…whatever he did [was] only in the rage of patriotism.”

With India’s general elections taking place right now, the “rage of patriotism” is far from irrelevant. This rings especially true because of the resurgence of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Narendra Modi and his muscular Hindu nationalism at the helm. Without Nazi-baiting or succumbing to Godwin’s law, it is nevertheless pertinent to consider how Modi’s popularity—like Hitler’s in India—has also required an erasure of past violence. In 2002, Modi was put under the media microscope for being accused of complicity in the communal riots in Gujarat, which transpired while he was Chief Minister and led to over 1,000 deaths—most of them Muslim. Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, there is no doubt that Modi’s future successes could only be possible with a massive campaign of disremembrance. Time and again, the BJP tells the Indian electorate to look forward, to worry more about what India can become than what it has been, and finally, to put aside the divisiveness of left-wing, minority-based politics. Modi, they say, can deliver progress.

Fear of a nation divided seems very much the province of the majority; the assertion of sameness does not hurt them because they command it. The past is the past, and a united future requires only strength of resolve and love of country. As for those on the margins, their struggles are erased and their unique experiences rendered incompatible with an undivided India. Whose voices should be heard? Whose concerns—or “religious feelings,” as it were—should shape the future? Dina Nath Batra, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, and the people he claims to represent: that’s who. In the end, it is precisely this political logic that allows for Hitler’s Mein Kampf to be so popular, and Doniger’s The Hindus to be pulled from the shelves. This is the politics of looking forward: a shrug to past violence, and a wink to the majority.

 

*A longer piece would also take consideration of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses—its being banned in India and the aftermath—which some would see as a counterpoint to my main argument. My point, though, is that the political backdrop of the banning of The Satanic Verses served as one of many factors leading to a growing distrust of minority-based politics. That, in turn, helped to shape today’s landscape.

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Drew Thomases is a Ph.D. candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Religion, studying the anthropology of Hindu traditions. He holds a B.A. from Hamilton College in religion and Asian studies, as well as an M.A. and M.Phil. from Columbia University, both in religion. His dissertation research is based in Pushkar, India, where he explores the intersections of pilgrimage, tourism, and globalization.