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Under pressure by Hindu nationalists, Penguin India yanks US scholar's religious history

NEW DELHI - Under pressure from a small Hindu nationalist group, Penguin India publishing house has yanked all copies of an American scholar's narrative history of Hinduism from sale in India and ordered them destroyed.

The group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, or the Save Education Movement, had objected to religious historian Wendy Doniger's 2009 book, "The Hindus: An Alternative History" for describing mythological texts as fictional and, thus, hurting "the religious feelings of millions of Hindus," according to a lawsuit filed against Penguin India.

A leader of the group filed the lawsuit in 2010 against the Indian publishing house as well as the New York-based arm Penguin Group Inc. On Monday, Penguin India said that, as part of a case settlement, it was ordering all Indian sales of the book to cease and all copies to be pulped.

By Thursday, bookstores in the capital of New Delhi were refusing to sell any copies.

The action stunned writers and intellectuals in India, with many wondering how one of the world's oldest publishing houses had given in to demands by right-wing nationalists.

Some worried it was a sign of growing intolerance of dissent in India, with the country's main Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi, campaigning aggressively for this year's elections.

"You have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement," novelist and rights activist Arundhati Roy wrote in a letter to the publisher printed Thursday in the Times of India.

Roy, best known for her Booker-prize winning novel "God of Small Things," is also published by Penguin, though she suggested she may rethink the relationship.

"You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least," she wrote, saying the publisher's decision "affects us all."

An editorial in The Hindu newspaper excoriated Penguin India, saying that in allowing itself "to be browbeaten into submission by a little-known outfit that saw no contradiction in its own sweeping slander of the author ... is a comment on the illiberalism incrementally taking India in its sweep."

Doniger is not the first author to be silenced by religious or political conservatives in India. In 2011, the state of Gujarat where Modi has held the top office for 12 years banned Joseph Lelyveld's biography on pacifist freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi, after reviews suggested Gandhi had a homosexual relationship.

The same year, the Indian government banned visits by American writer and broadcaster David Barsamian, who has said he believes his reports from the disputed region of Kashmir may have irritated officials, though he has never officially been given a reason.

India-born writer Salman Rushdie's 1988 book "The Satanic Verses," has been banned in the country, 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.

Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, said herself this week she was "angry and disappointed," as well as "deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate."

But she defended Penguin India, saying in a statement that the publisher "took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit," until being defeated "by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu."

While regretting that thousands of copies would be pulped, she hinted that Indians would still be able to read the book if they wanted on Kindle or possibly through other online postings. "I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book."

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

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