Meet Dinanath Batra – The man who took on Donigner vulgur book on Hindus

Dinanath Batra, 84, waged war on 'The Hindus' with an energy that belies his years

Dinanath Batra, 84, waged war on ‘The Hindus’ with an energy that belies his years

I issue a disclaimer very early on in our conversation: I am not in agreement with Dinanath Batra’s actions regarding Wendy Doniger’s book.
“You have the freedom of expression,” he tells me with a twinkle in his eyes, “so why don’t you allow me mine?”
I tell him I am there to speak with him because of my very belief that freedom of expression does not discriminate and extends to those with whom one may disagree with.
That settled, he insists we must first drink tea. At 84, Dinanath Batra is sprightly; he sits erect and exudes an energy that belies his advanced years. A former headmaster, the educationist retired as principal some 30 odd years ago and has since dedicated himself to education.
He gave up on family life, he tells me. His children visit him, but all his time is spent working on “Shiksha Bachao Andolan”.
‘Cleanup’ mission
I am here about Doniger’s book, but I soon realise that it’s one of many that Batra has taken objection to. He tells me with pride that he has fought ten cases and lost none.
One very gratifying instance, he says, was removing the reference to Bhagat Singh as a terrorist in a textbook; the opposing counsel for NCERT was the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, a worthy opponent.
But Batra is not one to shy away from a fight; he goes in fully prepared. Hours are spent on research and follow-ups, and as if to prove his point a well thumbed and flagged copy of Doniger’s book rests on the table.
During the Penguin case – he tells me of an instance when the publisher’s lawyer didn’t turn up in court and the judge took cognisance of it – Batra never missed a court appearance.
“This 80-year-old man,” the judge began and Batra stopped him midway, correcting him, “young man, Sir”. And the judge continued, “This 80-year-old young man can come to court but you can’t?”
He fined them Rs 1500 and in the next hearing the money was given to Batra.
It is this unequivocal commitment to what he considers his mission of “cleaning up texts” that is the source of that unflagging energy.
Batra tells me there are three parameters for evaluating a book – the first is intention, then the content and finally language. When they evaluated The Hindus, it failed on all three counts. Whilst the last two are open to interpretation, how can one surmise the “intention” of the author behind a work? This factor is always open to conjecture and debate.
For this he has an answer. During one lecture, he claims, Doniger drew a sexual inference on the relationship between Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshman, for this there was an egg thrown at her (it missed).
He says that she is said to have stated that this book was a response to the egg thrower. For Batra this alleged statement is enough proof that her intentions in writing this book were not of an honest nature.
He speaks of a long tradition of distortion of ancient texts and indeed history that existed on the encouragement of people like Lord Macaulay.
Different meanings
Take the term “go-ghna”, which is a reference to Indriya but has been translated to mean cow sacrifice (rough translation). It is hugely contentious, and my knowledge of Sanskrit does not qualify me to comment on it, so I speak with Rohini Bakshi, a student of advanced Sanskrit, who took to learning the language so that as a Hindu she may study the ancient texts without the interference of “vested interests”.
Rohini tells me that Sanskrit words are polyvalent and can be interpreted in widely different ways. The translation one chooses is based on one’s worldview and the narratives we are trying to create. This, then, applies as much to Wendy Doniger as it does to Batra. Both do the same thing which is use the authority of ancient texts to create their own narrative.
But this begs the question further, is this then a case for a ban or for debate? I tell Batra that whilst he has emerged victorious in his legal fight, he is increasingly being seen as “the villain of Freedom of Expression”.
I am pushing my luck, but he is not offended. It’s your freedom of expression, he repeats, tongue in cheek.
Right to express
Somewhere along the way we have started conversing openly, pushing the boundaries of political correctness. He is an avid debater and enjoys being challenged. I steer the conversation back to his personal definition of freedom of expression.
He extrapolates on three words – svayatta (autonomy), svatantrata (independence), svacchandata (independent action/uncontrolled behaviour. It is svatantrata that he believes in, the right to express but not to cause offence, and if offence it caused the law provides for it to be challenged.
Look at America, why do they have nudist colonies, he asks me. Nothing wrong with nudists, I contest, they believe it’s a way of being closer to nature. Nothing wrong, he agrees, but even in “free” America there are laws for public obscenity and they are not permitted to roam naked in society.
Our discussion comes to an end and Batra escorts me to the door. You can take the elevator but if you have a tendency to diabetes, take the stairs, he teases. I take the stairs.
Batra is someone I suspect I will disagree with more than agree with, but I come away with a grudging admiration for his tenacity and his ability to fight a good fight.
In this battle for freedom of expression, the opponent is a worthy one, who I dare say takes the fight more seriously than those of us who stop at writing columns, signature campaigns, outrage on social media.
The writer scripted the story of the much-acclaimed film Kahaani. This is the second in a series about freedom of expression.