An Indian global voice

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A.S. PANNEERSELVAN

I have always gained some new insights in my interactions with the renowned media scholar, Prof. Robin Jeffrey. His work on the Indian media is immense. He has authored three important books on the media: India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-Language Press, 1977-99; Mission, Money and Machinery: Indian Newspapers in the Twentieth Century; and The Great Indian Phone Book (co-authored with Assa Doran). He believes that India is in the midst of a dramatic and fundamental media revolution.

A couple of months ago, he delivered the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture in Chennai, where he said younger journalists would play a major role in determining whether this revolution turns into a golden age of journalism. He is convinced that news organisations that have a global focus are surviving and will survive. He offers two reasons: “The first is the need for reliable information. Regular newspapers originated in the 17th century to provide merchants, who were willing to pay for them, with precisely this commodity — timely, trustworthy information. That is what India’s oldest still-publishing newspaper, Mumbai Samachar, was set up to do in 1823. There is a global audience for globally significant news that organisations like The New York Times, Agence France-Presse (AFP), Bloomberg, the BBC, and others provide. This reliability and global reach are the related reasons why big media organisations will survive. Thousands of institutions and millions of people will pay for the services they offer — even if the most effective methods of extracting payment are still being discovered.”

The world is waiting
And this is where he sees a weakness in the Indian media. He argues that the world is ready and ripe for an Indian media presence in this era of digital revolution. His forceful argument: “Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia all have significant voices that report the world. The Arab world produced Al Jazeera. The French have AFP. EFE, the Spanish news agency, is the world’s fourth largest (after Associated Press, Reuters and AFP). Germany has Deutsche Welle as well as huge privately owned media organisations. China pours money into its global newsgathering and dissemination. Even Russia has a lively and imaginative English-language news service. Where is India? India, which has unrivalled international connections throughout Asia and Europe, in Africa and North America and even in South America? India, which has more speakers of English than England itself? India, which has a vast film industry and a leading place in information technology? Yet, India’s media presence in the world is tiny. Its public broadcaster barely speaks internationally and when its vibrant domestic media venture abroad it is only to connect with the NRIs. The world is waiting for a digital-age voice from India — a BBC, a New York Times or even a China Central Television. A voice with global interests, global sources, yet an Indian point of view.”

To be honest, I was a bit sceptical about Prof. Jeffrey’s grand vision for the Indian media. His idea of an outstanding global platform that offers a superb range of possibilities seemed like an attempt to overreach. I was not fully convinced of his argument that these possibilities do not depend on size alone. But I was forced to change my mind when this newspaper carried a lead article by Susan Abulhawa, “The searing hypocrisy of the West” and the type of responses that poured in from all corners of the world.

Ms. Abulhawa’s argument was that Palestine is quite literally being wiped off the map by a state that openly upholds Jewish supremacy and Jewish privilege, and that Israel’s excuse for the latest rampage in Palestine was that it was searching for three settlers who went missing on June 12. She was indignant about the fact that although hundreds of Palestinian children are kidnapped, brutalised or killed by Israel, there is rarely, if ever, a condemnatory reaction from the world.

Predictably, like any other entrenched and polarising issue, this article had a number of critics, just as it had a huge set of approving readers. As the Readers’ Editor, I have received angry mails on various contentious issues within South Asia. One example is the newspaper’s coverage of Sri Lanka, where extreme Tamil Nationalists were upset over the newspaper’s stand against the ‘sole representative’ claim and the violent campaigns of the LTTE. Sinhala supremacists became very shrill whenever the paper talked about fair devolution of powers and a settlement of some of Tamil’s legitimate aspirations. The point here is not whether there is a total agreement on any issue, but the fact that a newspaper flags the issues from an ethical point of view, leading to a debate.

A major opportunity
In this context, I see a major opportunity for The Hindu to move forward to become an Indian global voice. It has a legacy. It is credible. It has talent. It has a worldview that is liberal, inclusive and democratic. According to Prof. Jeffrey, the best journalists and news gatherers need all the reliability, persistence, storytelling talent and rat-like cunningness that have long been a part of the profession, and the ability to conceptualise and present their stories by using all the means that digital technology allows. Professionals in The Hindu have all these qualities, and the newspaper has a reputation for trustworthiness. All it needs now is to make a quantitative jump to leverage its qualitative advantage.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

Modi’s India: The first 30 days

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Debraj Bhattacharya

Narendra Modi led NDA government has completed its first 30 days in office following a massive electoral victory in May. While it is too early to pass any judgment as to whether the new government will be able to live up to the expectations of the people who have voted him to power, we can nonetheless see certain trends emerging. Let me briefly try to recap some of the crucial developments happening over the last one month.

Modi and his Ministers

India’s Modi era started with a gala swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on May 26. This was attended by the elite of India ranging from corporate tycoons to spiritual gurus. The leaders of the SAARC countries, including Nawaz Sharif were also present.

Soon after, Modi announced a new catchy mantra “minimum government, maximum governance”, whatever that means. In effect it meant fewer Ministers but not fewer Ministries. Most of the Ministers are not experienced which probably means that they will rely a lot on the PMO for direction. One of the Ministers, Gopi Nath Munde, had an unfortunate accident and passed away. The choice of Smriti Irani as HRD Minister raised a minor storm in view of her academic record. Another Minister Nihal Chand Meghwal from Rajasthan is accused of rape. BJP has refused to remove him from office alleging it is political conspiracy. Association of Democratic Rights, a civil society organisation, has produced data that shows that 30 per cent of the Ministers have criminal charges against them, while 18 per cent have serious charges. One of the Ministers, Sanjeev Balyan, is accused in the Muzaffarnagar riot case. Perhaps Modi could have chosen only those who have a clean record.

Inside the Parliament

The new MPs took their oath on June 5. On June 9 President Shri Pranab Mukherjee addressed the new Parliament for the first time and outlined the agenda of the new government. The speech sounded almost socialistic as he said that curbing inflation and reducing poverty is the key task of the new government. In his first speech in the Parliament, Modi focused on changing India’s image in the eyes of the world, curbing inflation, reducing violence against women, necessity of skill development, improving sanitation, giving shelter to the poor, improving centre-state relations and making development a “mass movement.” Shrimati Sumitra Mahajan was elected as the Speaker of the House.

Governance

A key plank of the Modi campaign was good governance. The first one month however saw several controversies emerging which were not in keeping with the promises made. The new government faced an embarrassment when one of its Ministers, former army Chief General V.K. Singh, accused the Army Chief-Designate Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag of “dacoity”. Senior BJP leader and Defense Minister Arun Jaitley stepped in said that the choice is final. More mindless was a controversy related to the use of Hindi in social media which was opposed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha and the decision was revised. There was another controversy related to changing of Governors in various states which was opposed by some of the Governors. Till the end of the period no one was however removed. The fourth controversy related to reports that several NGOs were being watched by the IB. This raised fear of silencing the voice of dissent from the civil society. On the positive side Modi has apparently emphasised on longer working hours and cleaner offices for the various Ministries. The administration has been told to speed up the process of clearing files. The Cabinet took an important positive decision to form an SIT to unearth black money stashed abroad and there were reports that the Swiss authorities are preparing a list of names of people who have black money in Swiss Banks. However it was made clear by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley that no communication has been received from the Swiss government in this regard. Delhi witnessed a period of power shortage which resulted in a familiar political blame game but not much relief for the poor and middle-class of the city.

Rural and Urban Development

The focus of the President’s address as well as Narendra Modi’s maiden speech in Parliament was on “development” but not much actually happened in terms of changes in policies related to development of the country that were initiated during ten years of UPA rule. There was a hint from Venkiah Naidu that JNNURM may be changed and an announcement from Nitin Gadkari that Ganga and Yamuna rivers would cleaned and trees would be planted but not much beyond that. The only major decision that was taken was that the height of the Narmada Dam would be raised, a decision that was opposed by Medha Patkar, activist of Narmada Bachao Andolan and AAP leader. She argued that the Ministry should first assess the ground situation, a suggestion that seems to be sensible enough.

Foreign Policy

The invitation to SAARC country leaders, especially Nawaz Sharif, for the swearing-in ceremony was a positive step towards building good relations with the neighbours. Sharif had a meeting with Modi in Delhi also later sent a letter of thanks. However there was also firing at the border in Kashmir between the two sides, indicating that stable relations between the two countries would require lot more work. The Prime Minister’s first foreign tour was to Bhutan. He made an embarrassing mistake by saying “Nepal” when he wanted to say “Bhutan” but otherwise the trip went off well with both sides reiterating their commitment to developing hydro-power and India promising Bhutan to help build its Supreme Court.

Economy

The first thirty days did not turn out to be good for the economy although initially the stock markets were jubilant after the swearing-in of the new Prime Minister. Inflation reached a five month high and it has been predicted that onion prices will reach Rs 100 by September-October. Growth rate was sluggish as India recorded it’s below 5 per cent growth rate for the second year in a row. Railway fares were hiked by 14.2 per cent and freight charges were also hiked by 6.5 per cent. While some have argued that this was bold decision to improve the financial health of the Railways, it is also likely to impact on inflation and therefore further increase the sufferings of the poor people of the country.

Communalism

Communalism unfortunately raised its ugly head almost as soon as the new government came to power. On the day of the swearing-in there was a minor clash between Hindus and Muslims in Ahmedabad. This was followed by the ghastly murder of a Muslim IT professional in Pune by Hindu Rashtra Sena. There were several arrests made. RSS expressed its disapproval of Article 370 leading to a verbal confrontation with Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister. Legal notice was served by Dinanath Batra to Orient Blackswan who capitulated before the demand by deciding to review Shekhar Bandypadhyay’s well-known text book “From Plessey to Partition” and also ‘set aside’ another academic book “Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmadabad since 1969.” Thus the trend that was started when Wendy Doninger book “Hinduism: An Alternative History” was pulped by Penguin under a similar ‘legal’ threat has continued.

The Finance Minister is expected to present his first budget in the second week of July. This will make the policy orientation of the new government clearer. Till then one can say there has been some good moves in foreign policy. However inflation, IB watch on NGOs and incidences of communal violence is worrying. More needs to be done to reduce rape and murder of women which continues unabated. “Acchey Din” is clearly still some distance away.

India – A New Beginning?

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By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
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India, whose annual economic growth rate is now, at 4.5 percent, which is half of what it was a couple of years ago.

Once viewed as an up-and-coming economy that was making terrific progress, India is a country where corruption is all-pervasive, bureaucracy has paralyzed infrastructure projects, and foreign capital is barred from important markets, while Vodafone, Nokia, IBM, Shell, and other multinationals have faced the consequences of tax laws that allow the authorities to reopen old cases. It also suffers from a big fiscal deficit, inflation, and general mismanagement.

Little wonder, then, that Primer Minister Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister undertook impressive but insufficient reforms in the early 1990s, is now departing his tenure in utter humiliation.

Singh’s Congress Party, which has ruled India for much of the past 65 years, has just been crushed in the general election and will command about one-sixth of the total number of seats that will be controlled by the incoming administration of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The legendary Congress Party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been reduced to a parliamentary bloc comparable in size to regional parties such as AIADMK, led by the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The country’s more than 500 million voters have said “basta!” to a scheme of patronage, welfare programs, and subsidies that was once the key to the Congress Party’s lock on the majority. Millions of young voters from the middle class who are the children of the half-hearted reforms of the 1990s recognize the chasm that has opened between their aspirations and a model that is the major obstacle in the path to meeting them.

It is fascinating to see liberal Indians, including many intellectuals, who used to despise the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi, its controversial leader who has been repeatedly accused of intolerance towards Muslims, now cling to the hope that this very man will shake up the system, open India to full-throttle globalization, and make the economy competitive again. Only sheer desperation about the current of state of affairs could have pushed them to vote for Modi and take his word when he promises not to endanger the country’s famed secularism—a leap of faith since it was only in 2002 that Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, was perceived to have tolerated a massive pogram against Muslims.

Indians have done the right thing. The Congress Party needed to be sent an unequivocal message that dynastic politics and 20th century interventionist populism have no place in a modern world power. Modi’s overwhelming mandate and his strong majority mean there will be little excuse if the incoming prime minister does not make true on his catchy slogan—“less government and more governance.”

The biggest risks are these: that Modi will feel obliged to pay back the campaign funds he has received from the major capitalist players; that the chaotic nature of India’s federal architecture will make decision-making impossible; and that Modi’s nationalist zeal will come back to the forefront and the reform agenda will be replaced with religious and political authoritarianism.

Liberal writer Gurcharan Das recently addressed the third risk in the Financial Times: “I take comfort in India’s pugnacious press, fearless judiciary and hugely diverse, disobedient people—all of which make dictatorship a tall order.” As for the other two risks, only Modi’s leadership can overcome them.

We are about to find out if it can.

Why did the Congress suffer a poll rout?

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Soutik Biswas

After all, India enjoyed social stability and 8.5% growth for most of the decade the Congress government was in power. It rolled out a number of welfare schemes which many believed improved public facilities in the poorest regions of India.

To be sure, growth halved, inflation spiralled and a number of embarrassing corruption scandals hit the government in its second term. Even so, how does that explain the party’s worst-ever tally of under 50 seats?

Make no mistake, the scourge of unrelenting inflation turned the poor and the middle class against Congress: for the last three-and-a-half years India has been suffering its highest rate of inflation for 20 years, one that has also been higher than the world average.

This, many say, was the immediate trigger for people’s anger and disenchantment with the Congress.

Then there was what many call the party’s failure to adapt to a changing India, which was moving, in the words of one commentator, from a “petitional to an aspirational culture”.

Congress leaders would say in private that their welfare schemes for the poor, led by a massive rural employment guarantee scheme, would fetch them enough votes in the villages to win the elections.
‘Failure to adapt’

But the party possibly failed to realise that it is easier to spend large amounts of money on welfare schemes when the economy is growing and inflation is low, as was the case in the first five years of the government. In the second term growth was crawling, inflation was high and there was a current account deficit.

Also, selling welfare schemes caught up with the law of diminishing returns in an India which is increasingly young, restless and aspirational.

Every time Rahul Gandhi was reminding the people on the campaign that enrolment had gone up in the jobs-for-work scheme, he was tacitly admitting that the economy was in the doldrums. More money spent on dole implies that your economy is not doing well. It is not something a nation can be very proud of.

Again, when a rash of corruption scandals erupted in the government’s stormy second term, all the senior leaders – PM Manmohan Singh, party chief Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi – were missing in action: none of them came out and assured the country they would crack down on graft.

Mr Singh and Ms Gandhi hardly spoke to the public and the media, and Rahul Gandhi was seen as a leader who refused to take responsibility.

Politics is all about adapting to changing circumstances and navigating change: the Congress party was not nimble enough to do so.

“It was a deep intellectual failure of the Congress to understand and adapt to changed circumstances. It continued with its politics of low aspiration,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research told me.

Narendra Modi stepped into this “moral, political and governance vacuum”, as Aam Aadmi leader and political scientist Yogendra Yadav describes it, and fashioned himself as a hands-on modernising ruler, promising jobs and development during his campaign.

“I don’t think Indians were yearning for an authoritarian leader. There was a sense that in Manmohan Singh we had a leader who was not discharging the leadership role appropriate to his office. There was a yearning for leadership that was inherent to the office,” says Mr Mehta.

The rest, as we know now, is history.

What India Can Teach America About Democracy

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By Michael Crowley

Indian military officers practice the un-hoisting of the Indian flag as the sun sets during rehearsals for the upcoming Beating Retreat ceremony at Raisina hill which houses India’s most important ministries and the presidential palace in New Delhi, India,Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. The ceremony is held annually on Jan. 29, marking the end of republic day celebrations.

The United States is often taken for granted as the world’s exemplar of democracy. American policymakers are comfortable in that position. They tend to spend more time assuming that all eyes are on us than seeking lessons from beyond our borders.

But if America reversed its inward perspective, what would it see? Older cultures that are younger democracies may have more to teach us than we would like to admit. First on the list is India. The U.S. can benefit from looking at the ways that country faces its constitutional, demographic and strategic challenges.

Constitutionalism: Have Faith.

In his 1997 book “The Idea of India,” Sunil Khilnani describes India’s leaders establishing constitutional democracy “in a fit of absent-mindedness.” Following partition and the end of British colonial rule, India’s constitution was finalized in 1950. To date, India’s constitutional lifespan is less than one-third that of the U.S. That amount includes a nearly two-year period (the “emergency” of June 1975 to March 1977) when Prime Minister Indira Ghandi suspended elections and civil liberties. In 1950, however, India adopted universal voting rights in a society where inequality had been codified culturally for centuries. Khilnani writes that no one knew how this “fundamental contradiction,” inscribed in India’s constitution, might be resolved. B.K. Ambedkar, then leader of India’s “untouchables,” said during a Constitutional Assembly in 1949: “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality … How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

The link Ambedkar cites between inequality and democratic health has appeared on many U.S. op-ed pages. There is a striking difference in U.S. and Indian perspective towards their respective constitutions. Khilnani describes the Indian constitutional process as a leap of faith. While historians like Gordon S. Wood have emphasized the “radicalism” of the American Revolution, one is more likely to find the U.S. constitution treated as holy writ rather than a human effort at better government.

The U.S. constitution has no better credential than the political stability it has produced. Rigid attitudes toward the constitution, however, have become barriers to change on issues with mainstream support (see health care reform, gun control and same-sex marriage) in America. One wonders whether a constitution like India’s, which was more progressive than the culture that produced it, can serve its nation better by being more responsive to mainstream calls for reform. The U.S. took the 15th and 19th amendments and the Civil Rights Act to ensure universal voting rights. India accomplished it in the first draft.

Demography: Size and Diversity

At 1.2 billion people, India’ population is equivalent in size to four Americas. Like America, it is a comparatively young nation. Half of the Indian population is below the age of 20. In India, the median age is 35 and dropping; in the U.S., it is nearly 37.

Demographers often point to young populations as sources of economic dynamism. A large working-age population supporting a smaller retirement age population is certainly preferable to the reverse. Population, however, can be a burden and a boon. India faces a similar challenge to China in developing its economy quickly enough to provide jobs for its growing young population. Its political stability depends upon it.

In his 2009 book “The Post-American World,” Fareed Zakaria (in a chapter titled “The Ally”) discusses the anticipation and confusion over what type of democratic power India will become. In part because of the economic strains of providing for its large population, Zakaria argues, India may not develop a level of military strength that could counter China’s rise.

The structure of India’s economy, on the other hand, may empower it. Zakaria details the rough composition of India’s GDP: 50 percent services, 25 percent manufacturing and 25 percent agriculture. This is on par with nations such as Portugal and Greece that have higher average incomes and which lead India in manufacturing and agriculture, but trail it in services. This is a combination, Zakaria writes, “that no one could have planned.” In other words, India’s industrial base may need to catch up, but in 21st century technologies it is better suited to compete. Given the country’s demographics, this is probably a better situation than the reverse.

Strategy: Your Enemies Are Closer

The U.S. is bordered by two democracies. While deeply concerned with enemies abroad, it recently has not had to contend with adversarial neighbors. By contrast, India shares borders with China and Pakistan — both rivals and nuclear powers with whom it has clashed militarily. As noted above, India’s economic demands may prevent it from acquiring military might to rival China. If money were no option, it is unclear if it would choose to do so. India founded the “non-aligned” movement and has prized its independence from what George Washington termed “entangling alliances.” Its foreign policy has been driven by self-interest, and will likely remain focused on stability in Southeast Asia. America’s relationship with India will go a long way toward securing its influence in the region.

America has a unique standing among world democracies. Its foreign policy has the broadest reach. It benefits the U.S., however, to examine the challenges facing the nascent democracies it looks to as allies. An outward-looking foreign policy that seeks better understanding of the challenges these regional allies face may help the U.S. improve its relations with them. In the process, the U.S. may also learn a few lessons abroad it can use at home.

(Michael Crowley is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association. He has previously worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump and The Pew Charitable Trusts.)

Why did Penguin recall a book on Hindus?

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Soutik Biswas

Wendy Doniger Wendy Doniger said she did not blame her publisher Penguin India for withdrawing her book The Hindus

“Now here’s this book. And there will be more. After half a century of studying and engaging with Hinduism, I’m not about to be silenced by a few (bad) eggs,” academic Wendy Doniger wrote in her latest book On Hinduism, published last year.

Doniger, who teaches at the University of Chicago and has written nearly half a dozen books on Hinduism, including a translation of the Kama Sutra, was writing about how her 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History quickly became a lightning rod for Hindu anger.

Doniger wrote that bloggers had accused her of attacking Hinduism and sexualising Hindus, flooded Amazon with their “lurid opinions of the book” and sent her obscene and threatening emails. There was even a protest outside the US embassy in Delhi calling for the book, which was climbing the best-seller non-fiction list, to be banned. The book had also prompted a legal challenge from Hindu groups and attracted at least two separate criminal complaints.

But Tuesday’s news of her publisher Penguin India deciding to recall and destroy all remaining copies of The Hindus is being seen as the unkindest cut of all.

The publisher appears to have come to an out-of-court agreement with a little-known Hindu campaign group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), which had filed cases against the book.

The man behind the campaign is Shiksha Bachao Andolan leader Dinanath Batra, a former teacher and school principal. After retirement, he told a newspaper, he began to devote his time to a “mission to see distortions removed from books taught to schoolchildren”.

Since then, he says, he has filed some 10 lawsuits involving “objectionable passages” from various textbooks. He filed another demanding an essay on Ramayana by the late poet and scholar AK Ramanujan be dropped from the history syllabus of Delhi University. That was followed by a legal notice to a newspaper for publishing a story on Hindu terrorism. Then he trained his guns on the Doniger book.
Cover of The Hindus Mr Batra finds the cover of Doniger’s book “vulgar”

“The book is in a bad taste right from the beginning,” Mr Batra told a BBC Hindi colleague on Wednesday. “If you see the front page [cover], the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in a vulgar pose. The book is slanderous and even facts have been distorted.”

The Hindus is a magisterial 779-page work that attempts a narrative that is different to the one constituted by the famous texts in Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India.

Doniger writes that it also tells an alternate history to “show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the [Hindu] tradition – women, untouchables [Dalits]- did actually contribute to Hinduism”. Reviewers who liked the book described it as “history as entertainment” and “staggeringly comprehensive”. They praised Doniger’s “vast erudition, insight, graceful writing laced with gentle wit”.

Mr Batra doesn’t think so.

He finds it objectionable that Doniger writes in the book that independence hero Mahatma Gandhi had a “habit of sleeping beside girls young enough to be called jailbait in the United States”; and that 19th Century Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda “set himself against all forms of caste distinction and advised people to eat beef”.

Mr Batra’s pride is also hurt by Doniger’s assertion that Maharashtrian queen Lakshmi Bai “claimed loyalty to the British” and sought their help when a local rival to the throne invaded her kingdom. And he also does not believe Doniger when she writes that “there is no Hindu canon”, and that ideas about major issues such as vegetarianism, non-violence, even caste, are “subjects of a debate, not a dogma”.

The fact that a top publisher has acceded to the demands of a fringe Hindu group has come as a shock to many. (Penguin has refused to comment so far.)

“This is deeply disappointing,” historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted. “Penguin should have appealed in a higher court.”

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