When Penguin abruptly accepted defeat in an Indian court and withdrew a controversial book a fortnight ago, the backlash was so ferocious it took almost everyone by surprise.

A small, hardline Hindu group said it had found the book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, by academic Wendy Doniger offensive towards their religion, forcing the mighty conglomerate to retreat in the face of a lawsuit. Two authors subsequently asked the publisher to cancel contracts and pulp their books, too, a move called "unprecedented" by one Indian newspaper.

Other famous writers in its stable protested at Penguin, including the activist Arundhati Roy, who accused it of succumbing to "fascists". On Twitter, images of the Penguin logo circulated with its name replaced by "Chicken".

In the same week, the United States ended its decade-long boycott of controversial politician Narendra Modi after its envoy met him to discuss bilateral relations. Modi is the Prime Ministerial candidate of the opposition party, the BJP, and favourite to win the elections in April. The State Department had cancelled his visa in 2005 on grounds of "severe violations of religious freedom" and had repeatedly refused to review its policy until pragmatism forced its hand.


The withdrawal of Doniger's book and the US rapprochement with Modi are not unrelated.

Liberals in India say they feel under attack and more despondent than ever before about the right to expression as religious groups increasingly flex their muscles. Many fear that Hindu nationalists will be further emboldened if Modi, their most demagogic leader, is elected prime minister.

The fact that it is 25 years since Salman Rushdie received a fatwa for The Satanic Verses has not been lost on some.

"We are in the middle of a cultural emergency and the levels of oppression in the cultural area should worry us as much as the political oppression [in India] of the 1970s," Rushdie said at a debate last week. A columnist at the Indian Express newspaper said Penguin's capitulation represented "the pulping of liberal India".

Just a week earlier, a mob calling itself the Hindu Sena (Hindu Army) burned copies of Caravan, a Delhi-based magazine, over an interview with a Hindu extremist who alleged that a prominent religious leader had sanctioned attacks across India that killed more than 100 people between 2006 and 2008.

"Groups of all stripes have been emboldened by the fact that, in India, freedom to take offence routinely trumps freedom of expression or freedom of academic research," Sandip Roy, a senior editor at FirstPost.com, says.

"Whether it's Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin being hounded out of West Bengal, Salman Rushdie not being allowed to make a tele-appearance at Jaipur, or Rohinton Mistry being taken out of the Mumbai university syllabus, India's political parties have routinely allowed fringe groups to grab the limelight. If they feel the party in power is more ideologically sympathetic to it, of course it will feel as Dinanath Batra [the man behind the lawsuit against Doniger] did, that 'the good times are coming'."

Hindus don't have a reputation for religious extremism, but over the past 25 years an increasingly aggressive movement has grown and started flexing its muscles.

The list of authors who have faced ruinous lawsuits, had books banned or lives threatened in India is growing alarmingly long. (Not all of the bans relate to Hindu groups; Muslims and Christians have demanded censorship, too.)

It is also less understood that the rise of this movement in India has been partly fuelled by activists in the UK and US, who in turn have pushed similar agendas.

If Modi is voted in as prime minister, there are fears that his election would have repercussions not only in India but abroad, too.

Hindu fundamentalism, also called Hindutva, is driven by a trio of organisations in India called the Sangh Parivar - the family. The RSS is an ultra-conservative group that demands unflinching patriotism and preservation of Hindu culture; the VHP is their religious arm; the BJP is the political arm and India's main opposition party.

There are smaller offshoots too, including a violent paramilitary wing called the Bajrang Dal and the hardline Shiv Sena party in Mumbai whose founder adored Hitler.

"Hindu nationalism is built on the idea that India is a Hindu majoritarian nation, with Muslims and Christians cast as the minority, 'other'," Rahul Verma, a journalist and researcher on the subject, says. He says Hindu nationalism in recent years has fed off the Islamophobic, post-9/11 "Muslim terrorist" narrative.

Chetan Bhatt, the director at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics, has also spent years studying this movement.

"Narendra Modi has been an activist for the Hindu far-right paramilitary RSS and its affiliates for the entirety of his political life.

"He remains committed to the supremacist ideology of Hindutva, which says that India should be an exclusive Hindu nation state in which minorities are treated as second-class citizens or worse."

The movement mushroomed in 1984 when the VHP launched a campaign to reclaim a mosque it said was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. In 1992, it incited activists to demolish the mosque, sparking riots between Hindus and Muslims across India and propelling the BJP, which took advantage of the controversy, into national consciousness and into government in 1998.

Not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hindu and Sikh groups, including the VHP some say, campaigned for Asian radio stations in London to drop the word "Asian" so Hindus and Sikhs would not be lumped together with Muslims. An umbrella group called the Hindu Forum of Britain, earlier led by the VHP and the HSS, has campaigned against exhibitions and even Royal Mail stamps for supposedly insulting Hindus.

Its former general-secretary, Ramesh Kallidai, also alleged that British Muslims were "aggressively" converting hundreds of British Hindu girls to Islam through intimidation and beatings, even though the Metropolitan Police found no such evidence.

"It's imperative to mobilise against the Hindutva organisations in Britain," Sahgal says. "All Indian political parties have played communal politics and fallen short of their ideals but religious and gender inequality is at the heart of the Hindu right agenda."

That agenda could become mainstream if Modi's likely victory strengthens such groups in India and the UK. Twenty five years on from Rushdie's fatwa, it is paradoxical that some Hindu groups are pushing an ancient religion towards a mirror image of the same hardline Muslim groups that they say they are against.

The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger's book was a small milestone in what they hope will be that "pulping of liberal India".

Tragically, for those who believe in liberal, secular values and pluralism, these events may herald an even more terrifying future.

- Independent