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BANGALORE — Penguin Books India, a unit of Penguin Random House, has agreed to withdraw and destroy all copies of a 2009 book on Hinduism by an American scholar to settle a lawsuit by a Hindu nationalist group that had objected to the book’s portrayal of the religion.

In a copy of the out-of-court settlement dated Feb. 4, which has been widely circulating online, Penguin Books India said it would complete the withdrawal of “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” by Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago religion professor, within six months.

The lawsuit had been filed by Dina Nath Batra, the head of Shiksha Bacho Andolan, a Hindu educational organization in New Delhi, in 2011. Prior to the lawsuit, he filed a notice to Ms. Doniger and Penguin Group USA, then the parent of Penguin Books India, in 2010, saying that Ms. Doniger’s book “has hurt the religious feelings of millions of Hindus” and therefore breached  section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

The book, which was released in the United States and India in 2009, offended Hindus because of its “tendency to over-eroticize” the religion, said Ashok Malik, a journalist who reviewed “The Hindus” when it first came out. “I thought it was overdone.”

However, he did not support Penguin Books India’s decision to withdraw the book. “Why did Penguin go for an out-of-court settlement? They could have waited for a judgment,” he said. “This is part of a larger trend where publishers keep away from controversial topics.”

In a New York Times book review, the author Pankaj Mishra called the book “a salutary antidote to the fanatics who perceive — correctly — the fluid existential identities and commodious metaphysic of practiced Indian religions as a threat to their project of a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.”

Mr. Batra said in an interview Tuesday that Shiksha Bachao Andolan would continue to battle books that hurt religious sentiment, and Madan Mohan Sharma, a member of Bharatiya Shiksha, a sister organization, said the group felt vindicated by Penguin Books India’s decision.

In an email to India Ink, Ms. Doniger said that she was “angry and disappointed, and deeply concerned for freedom of speech in India.” Penguin India did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The book is not banned in India, and it is still available as an e-book on Amazon. “If a smaller publisher wants to get the rights transferred and publish it, they could,” said Nilanjana S. Roy, an author who is also a New York Times op-ed contributor. “But most publishers would not want this. Going to the courts is not what a publisher wants to do.”

Ms. Doniger’s scholarly work has drawn opposition from Hindu groups in India and overseas. During a lecture in London in 2003, Ms. Doniger was almost hit by an egg thrown by a Hindu nationalist who was angry at the “sexual thrust” of her interpretation of the “sacred” “Ramayana,”  Mr. Mishra wrote in his book review.

In 2010, an online petition started by the Sarasvati Research Trust, an educational institution based in New Delhi, demanded that Penguin Group USA withdraw the book from India.

Ms. Roy said Penguin Books India’s settlement sets a bad example. “There will be more people who would put pressure on the publishers, and they would not have the resources or the time to stand up for each of their books,” she said.

Last month, Bloomsbury India withdrew “The Descent of Air India,” by Jitender Bhargava, a former Air India executive director, who wrote about the national airline’s recent turbulent history. Local media reports said a lawsuit was filed by a former minister who was blamed in the book for causing the airline’s downfall. The publisher also issued a public apology to the minister.

Vikram Sampath, an author and the organizer of the Bangalore Literary Festival said, “The answer to a book you don’t agree with is another one –not a ban or withdrawal. If this trend continues, we will be left with chick lit books only, unfortunately.”

Published in: The New York Times
Published on: February 11, 2014