April 27, 2016

Economies of Offense: Hatred, Speech, and Violence in India by Rupa Viswanath (Journal of the American Academy of Religion)

Journal of the American Academy of Religion [2016]

Economies of Offense: Hatred, Speech, and Violence in India

Rupa Viswanath*

* Rupa Viswanath, Director, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Professor of Religion, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany. The author wishes to thank Nate Roberts and Wendy Doniger for valuable feedback, and the members of the 2014 AAR roundtable where these ideas were productively discussed: Brain Pennington, Cassie Adcock, Chad Bauman, Elaine Fischer, and Bart Scott.


Commentary on the Doniger affair has focused overwhelmingly on the principle of freedom of speech and the illiberal character of censorship ( Shainin 2014). There is a degree of valuable analytic abstraction to this discourse, which allows scholars and free speech advocates to compare the Doniger case with instances of the censorship of writing and art earlier in Indian history (for example, with the Rushdie affair; Malik 2014), and with cases elsewhere in the world. But the abstraction comes at the price of bracketing out the specific economy of forces within which freedom of speech is regulated in India. After all, not all offensive speech is challenged, and not all challenges result in successful silencing of the putative offender, as was the case with Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. In what follows I trace the regulation of what Indian legal language describes as “hurt religious sentiments” to its colonial origin, demonstrating that historically, the mandate of rulers has been to favor the powerful by reinforcing their capacity to silence the weak. To discern patterns in the contemporary governance of offense, I compare the Doniger case, in which statute 295A of the law was prominently invoked, to other cases in which words and acts are judged offensive to citizens of a diverse polity, sometimes in accordance with different laws. By observing when and how the state intervenes in such cases, I argue that Indian laws restricting offensive representations selectively repress speech claimed offensive to groups who can credibly threaten social disorder and violence, and, relatedly, those with significant electoral power.

[First published online: April 26, 2016]

© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

source URL: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/04/25/jaarel.lfw031.short