Monday, April 9, 2007

The Consequences of Scholarly Research, Indian Style

One does not usually associate the Oxford University Press with controversy. My guess is that their senior management has pretty low expectations for most of the books they publish, feeling happy when some of those books get any reviews at all, positive or negative. However, according to a report on Reuters this morning, one of their books received considerable attention from the Indian Supreme Court:

India's Supreme Court has ordered a state government to stop prosecuting on charges of racial hatred a U.S. scholar whose book was banned after claims that it insulted a revered 17th-century Hindu king.

The 2004 publication of Professor James W. Laine's book "Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India" [published by Oxford University Press] infuriated hardline Hindu groups in the western state of Maharashtra, who claimed Laine was questioning Shivaji's parentage.

In the absence of the author and the publisher, the offended parties decided that their fury would best be vented on the institution with the author conducted his research:

The book was banned in the state after dozens of protesters forced their way into the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, where the professor did his research. The mob destroyed rare Tibetan and Sanskrit manuscripts and smashed windows and doors.

While the Reuters dispatch is not specific about this, it appears that the ban was accompanied by legal charges of racial hatred brought against both Laine and the Oxford University Press. Presumably Oxford had the resources to appeal litigation to the level of the Supreme Court, leading to the decision reported today:

The court, whose ruling was released on Monday, ordered that the state drop all charges brought by hardliner groups against both the professor and his publisher, saying neither had intentionally tried to cause tensions between communities.

"One cannot rely on strongly worded and isolated passages for proving the charge," the court said in a statement.

This makes for an interesting story of cultural perspective. At the local level the state had to respond to the attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, and this raises an interesting analogy. Scholars want to believe that they can conduct their research in safety at this place, just as those of us in the blogosphere currently want to believe that it is a safe place for us to conduct our conversations. Nevertheless, the state level of government is accountable to its constituency; and, if that constituency was responsible for the violence, the state decided that the best way to restore such safety would be to ban the book and press charges against its author and publisher. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, represents a much larger and far more diverse constituency and, in a sense, castigated the state government for caving in to the base and violent actions of their local constituency.

From our vantage point we would like to see this as a victory for liberal thinking and an endorsement of the openness of academic scholarship, but I doubt that the state's constituents will see it that way. Perhaps the problem here is that cause and effect needed to be examined as two separate cases. The effect of destructive vandalism seems not to have been addressed at the legal level; yet it would seem that those responsible for the destruction should now be responsible for reparations, regardless of whether or not a particular book (obscure to most of the world) was the underlying cause. However, if that underlying cause is one of cultural offense, then it may be a mistake to rule on the offense itself, just as I would not want any branch of my government to tell me that I should be offended by, to raise a recent example, a crucifixion statue made of chocolate that make no attempt to hide the genitalia.

As a teenager, I learned an interesting lesson about banned books in the United States. Philadelphia had decided to make a big issue out of banning Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer from both its bookstores and public library branches. However, since it was easy enough for me to hop a train to New York, this was no big deal. The bad piqued my curiosity; and I had no trouble buying a copy in Manhattan and reading the book, never making a big deal about having my own copy. The book is still in my library (although I much preferred Tropic of Capricorn).

On the other hand, as an adult involved in global business transactions, I realized the delicacy of the nature of offense. I once found myself in Singapore have finished the book I had brought to read over the course of an extended trip. I was down the street from Tower Records (which dates the story) and decided to check out their book section. To my great delight (not to mention surprise), I found a copy of Interzone, a collection of early writing by William S. Burroughs including much of the preliminary material that would later mature into Naked Lunch. Not bothering to ask how this had slipped past Singaporean censors, I snatched up the copy and devoured it with relish. However, by the time I got to Kuala Lumpur, I realized that there was a lot of text in this book that could give a lot of offense to the people around me. I may have been overly cautious, but I locked the book in the safe in my hotel room. I was not going to carry it around with me to my business meeting, and I definitely did not want to leave it out where the cleaning lady might glance at it. The safe may have been extreme, but it was the easiest solution.

Taken together, these two anecdotes have a shared lesson: One can always find a way by coupling common sense to your better judgment. As we saw at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, this lesson is not always gladly received or readily learned. However, no one of us should try to assume the job of educating the rest of the world. We should simply negotiate our way through that world in a way that works best for us, and I think I have managed to find that way where controversial reading matter is involved!

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