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Publisher says 'intolerant and restrictive' Indian law forced it to withdraw book on Hinduism

NEW DELHI - Penguin India publishing house said Friday that "intolerant and restrictive" Indian laws forced it to remove a book from sale after it tried to defend an American author's religious history against objections from a conservative Hindu group.

The publisher's decision this week to pull and pulp all copies of historian Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History" shocked writers and intellectuals in India, with some worrying it was a sign of rising intolerance against dissent in the country.

Doniger defended Penguin India in a statement, saying the publisher had battled for four years against a lawsuit filed by the Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, or the Save Education Movement. The group objected to the book's describing mythological texts as fictional and, thus, hurting "the religious feelings of millions of Hindus," according to the lawsuit which also named Doniger and the New York-based arm Penguin Group Inc. as defendants.

Penguin India said it "believes, and has always believed, in every individual's right to freedom of thought and expression, a right explicitly codified in the Indian Constitution," according to a statement from the company.

It warned, however, that India's Penal Code "will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression."

The code, specifically section 295A, threatens up to three years imprisonment against those who "with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens in India, by words, either spoken or written ... insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class."

Penguin India said it that in settling the four-year lawsuit it was obliged "to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be."

Penguin India said that international editions of the book would remain available.

Doniger is not the first author to be silenced by religious or political conservatives in India. In 2011, the state of Gujarat banned Joseph Lelyveld's biography on pacifist freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi, after reviews suggested Gandhi had a homosexual relationship.

India-born writer Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses," has been banned in the country since 1998, as many Muslims consider it to be blasphemous. Rushdie was forced to cancel a 2012 appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival in the northern state of Rajasthan amid protests and threats by prominent Muslim clerics.

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Follow Katy Daigle on Twitter at http://twitter.com/katydaigle

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