Wendy Doniger Hindus book: Penguin India defends recall

Cover of The Hindus Penguin's decision to withdraw the book has been widely criticised

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Penguin India has defended its decision to recall and destroy copies of a book on Hinduism by a prominent US scholar.

In its first comments on the row Penguin said it had to respect the laws of land, such as those which make it a crime to offend religious feeling.

Penguin also said it had a duty to protect its employees against threats.

Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History had been the subject of a legal challenge claiming the text was offensive to Hindus.

Hindu campaign group Shiksha Bachao Andolan brought a civil case in 2011 against Penguin India, arguing that the book contained "heresies" insulting to Hindus.

Penguin reached an apparent out-of-court agreement with the group, details of which were circulated online earlier this week.

'Restrictive' laws

The decision to withdraw the book sparked widespread criticism that it undermined free speech, with many asking why such a big company had given in to a little-known group, the BBC's Andrew North reports from Delhi.

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The fact that a top publisher has acceded to the demands of a fringe Hindu group has come as a shock to many...”

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The publisher has not directly answered that question, but in its statement it said it had an obligation to respect the laws of the land "however intolerant or restrictive".

India's Penal Code makes it a criminal offence to deliberately outrage or insult "religious feelings" by spoken or written words, potentially putting Penguin India in a vulnerable legal position in the wake of the challenge by the Hindu group.

Penguin warned that such laws "will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression".

But critics argue that Penguin should have defended its case further.

"There hasn't been any court order. The settlement was signed before they went to Supreme Court. Of course, there is a problem with strange and ambiguous laws, but they didn't fight it until the end," Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy told the BBC.

Earlier this week, she wrote an open letter to Penguin asking it to explain why it "caved" in. She argues this marks a "dismaying shift showing submission to a growing attitude of intolerance".

Wendy Doniger said she did not blame Penguin but added that she was deeply angered and concerned for freedom of speech in India.

Many others in India have added to the chorus of criticism amid growing concern that religious groups were stifling free speech and artistic expression in the country.

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