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Give up your copyright, Penguin-Chicken! Lawrence Liang, readers serve legal notice on Doniger publisher

Penguin Chicken (via Twitter, Bhavin Patel)
Penguin Chicken (via Twitter, Bhavin Patel)

Advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus.

The 30-paragraph legal notice was sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, to Penguin earlier today, and argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is not longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public.

[Read full annotated copy of the legal notice]

Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published The Hindus: An Alternative History, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms. Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabarata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”

The notice adds that Penguin withdrawing the book:

despite the fact that there is no court order that mandates such withdrawal is shocking and in absolute contravention of your responsibilities as a publisher- to the author, the book and to the reading community upon whose goodwill your fortune and reputation depends. In effect you have withdrawn the book on the basis of a legal threat thereby granting unauthorized groups and individuals the right to censor books. These groups and individuals believe that the threat of force is the best way to counter the written word and when publishers succumb to such pressures they perhaps need to rethink why they are in the book business at all. While they may both be birds, there is a world of difference between a Penguin and a chicken and the last time my clients checked, the penguin had not changed his feathers in the natural world.”

Liang also writes that by Penguin acceding to the demands of a minority in pulping the book, they have discriminated between different readers by “conveniently choosing to acknowledge the claims and allegations of one particular class of readers who claim that their religious sentiments have been hurt by this book while ignoring the rights of many others who have found the book to be informative, enjoyable and insightful”.

That YOU NOTICEE have agreed to the aforementioned terms on the condition that Shri. Dinanath and the other busybodies shall withdraw all civil and criminal cases and complaints filed against you and the author is indicative that if not in the natural world, then at least in the publishing world the Penguin is mutating into a chicken. And furthermore by claiming that the aforementioned agreement has been entered into by YOU NOTICEE on your own ‘free will’, you insult one of philosophy’s favoured concepts.

The Hindus: Contentious cover
The Hindus: Contentious cover

The legal notice concludes:

28. Accordingly my clients demand that YOU NOTICEE rescind on the contract that you have entered into with miscellaneous busybodies and immediately commence the publication of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative history” and leave the messy act of pulping to those better suited for it - juicers and grinders.

29. That in the event you choose to betray our sanguinity about your judgment by abandoning your Penguinity then you have effectively acknowledged that you are no longer interested in exercising your rights as the owners of the copyright in the said work and that you shall license the said work under a general public license, which will enable any person to copy, reproduce and circulate whether in print or electronically within the territory of India without the risk of infringing your copyright or hurting your sentiments.

30. My clients understand that under normal circumstances if a publisher chooses to relinquish rights assigned to them by an author such rights revert back to reading public and as such it is only fair that you return to the public what you have taken away from it- the right to read and dissent.

Historic parallels

The language and structure of the legal notice mirrors parts of the notice sent to Penguin in 2010 by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee, the original petitioners against Penguin, who claimed that Doniger’s book was “written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light”.

They also claimed in their 47-paragraph legal notice that the book had “hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction”, had breached section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), citing the book’s line that “placing the Ramayan in its historical contexts demonstrates that it is a work of fiction, created by human authors, who lived at various times”. The petitioners had also taken objection to the illustration on the cover of the book:

That on the book jacket of the book Lord Krishna is shown sitting on buttocks of a naked woman surrounded by other naked women. That YOU NOTICEE have depicted Lord Krishna in such a vulgar, base perverse manner to outrage religious feelings of Hindus. That YOU NOTICEE and the publisher have done this with the full knowledge that Sri Krishna is revered as a divinity and there are many temples for Sri Krishna where Hindus worship the divinity. The intent is clearly to ridicule, humiliate & defame the Hindus and denigrate the Hindu traditions.

Precedents relied on in Liang’s notice

Full legal notice

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