Books, bans, Bloomsbury and bloopers: Why withdrawing Delhi Riots 2020 is problematic

Even as this controversy rages, news came that another book on the Delhi riots of 2020 is slated to hit the stands in September

Abhinav Agarwal September 08, 2020 09:56:18 IST
Books, bans, Bloomsbury and bloopers: Why withdrawing Delhi Riots 2020 is problematic

The cover of the book Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story

Enough ink has been spilled on Bloomsbury’s decision to withdraw publication of the book, Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, and the ensuing controversy. Bloomsbury decided to withdraw the because of their 'deep sense of responsibility towards society'. This, after having contracted the authors to write the book, reviewing and approving the draft and later the final draft, editing it, proof-checking it, getting a legal team to review and approve the contents of the book, designing the cover, typesetting it, sending it for the initial print run, and sharing the final draft of the book with the authors.

People have inferred from tweets that this was done at the behest of an author and that pressure was brought to bear on Bloomsbury India by its UK office.

How the round peg defence of free speech will be squared with the square hole of censorship and bowing down to an unaccountable, secret cabal is a topic that will be debated in the time to come. Leaving that debate for another time, let’s look at a few other issues here.

First, and this is bound to be controversial with people, but the fact is that among the major publishers in India, Bloomsbury India had been more liberal, in a manner of speaking, in providing space to non-Left voices. Bloomsbury’s parent company in the UK perhaps saw the Delhi Riots book as the final straw and decided to put its foot down. Perhaps the Left-liberal group that sees itself as the sole arbiter of what is free speech and what should be proscribed feared this book more than others. In any case, Bloomsbury India’s catalogue and a determination of its ideological composition is, of course, somewhat subjective, because even with exhaustive data on each publisher’s catalogue, segmenting an author and any book into the definitive categories of right-wing or left-wing is, at the end of the day, an exercise filled with subjectivity. More on this later.

Second, several authors, who had books in different stages of publication with Bloomsbury, announced they were withdrawing their book in protest against the Bloomsbury’s decision. In the long run we are all dead, as John Maynard Keynes famously wrote in 1923. In the short and medium term, however, it is equally undeniable that this also leaves the nascent and fragile right-wing literary ecosystem that much worse off. While it is uncontestable that authors be rightly outraged by a publisher’s surrender to the voices of intolerance from the Left, withdrawing publication of a book already well advanced in the publishing process was perhaps inadvisable. Publishing with established houses and with small, independent publishers should not be an either-or, nor should it be viewed in zero-sum terms.

Third, the solution to censorship from the Left lies not in abandoning that space, but in fighting for the right to have one’s voice heard. It is an unequal battle everywhere in the world today. The Left-liberal ecosystem has spent decades in entrenching itself and shunting voices from the right out of the public space. This victory of censorship has not been overnight. In 1969, ‘about one in four professors were at least moderately conservative, according to survey data collected by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.According to one study in 2009, the percentage of conservative academics in the field of History had dropped to seven percent, in Literature to three percent, and in Sociology it was down to eight percent.

No one is going to argue that this is entirely because of self-selection. A subtle and overt drive to eliminate diversity of opinion – especially dissenting opinion – from the public space has been ongoing for the last several decades. One particularly chilling manifestation in recent times, reminiscent of the acts of totalitarian regimes, goes by the name ‘Cancel culture’.

Coming back to the first point, is Bloomsbury a publisher that is less, or more, biased against right-wing authors? A somewhat unscientific method of using Amazon India’s search feature to look at books published since 2018 by some of the major publishers threw up some interesting results.

Some of the notable books by Penguin by Left-leaning authors are: ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, by Arundhati Roy (Apr 2019), ‘The Young and the Restless’ by Gurmehar Kaur (May 2019), ‘Fearless Freedom’ by Kavita Krishnan (Feb 2020), ‘Azaadi’, by Arundhati Roy (Sep 2020), ‘Why I Am a Liberal’, by Sagarika Ghose, and ‘2019: How Modi Won India’, by Rajdeep Sardesai (Nov 2019). On the other side of the ideological spectrum, there is ‘The Man Who Saved India’ by Hindol Sengupta (Aug 2018) and ‘Exam Warriors’, by Narendra Modi (Feb 2018). ‘Being Hindu’ by Hindol Sengupta, and ‘The Ocean of Churn’ by Sanjeev Sanyal were published in 2015 and 2016, respectively. A decidedly Left bias, one may presume.

Harper Collins has ‘The Swachh Bharat Revolution’, by Parameswaran Iyer (Sep 2019), ‘Swami Vivekananda’, by Makarand Paranjape (Apr 2019), ‘Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhanpi Massacre of 1979’, by Deep Halder (May 2019), and a ‘The India Way’, by S Jaishankar (Sep 2020). On the Left side, there are ‘A Desolation Called Peace’, by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat (May 2019) with ‘essays that … explore the aspiration for Azadi as a historical and indigenous demand.’, ‘Inquilab: A Decade of Protest’, by Various (Sep 2020), ‘Inside the Tablighi Jamaat’, by Zia Us Salam (July 2020), ‘Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment’, by Snigdhendhu Bhattacharya, ‘The Virtual Hindu Rashtra’, by Rohit Chopra (Apr 2019), and ‘Majoritarian State’, ed., Angana Chatterji, et al (March 2019). Again, a pronounced Left bias.

Context is a recent boutique imprint launched by Westland, owned by Amazon, and which seems to specialize in what may well be called Hinduphobic literature. Sample some of their releases - ‘Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India’, by KS Komireddi (May 2019), ‘Kashmir: Land of Regrets’, by Moosa Raza (Aug 2019), ‘Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the Making of the Hindu Vote’, by Dhirendra Jha (Apr 2019), ‘Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers’, by TM Krishna (Jan 2020), ‘Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism’, by Jyotirmay Sharma (Apr 2019), ‘Hindu Rashtra’, by Ashutosh (Mar 2019), ‘An Ordinary Man's Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India’, by Neyaz Farooquee (Feb 2020).

Rupa provides us with a ‘The RSS: Roadmaps for the 21st Century’, by Sunil Ambekar (Oct 2019), ‘Bharatiya Janata Party’, by Shantanu Gupta (Dec 2019), ‘Hindu Dharma and the Culture Wars’, by Koenraad Elst (May 2019), and ‘Mann Ki Baat’, by Bluekraft Digital (Mar 2019), while also giving us ‘Kashmir: Rage and Reason’, by Gowhar Geelani (Aug 2019), ‘Visible Mulsim, Invisible Citizen’, by Salman Khurshid (July 2019), ‘Politics of Jugaad’, by Saba Naqvi (Mar 2019).

Aleph seems to be similar to Context, both in provenance and ideology; independent but promoted by Rupa. Some of its releases are: ‘My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India’, by Aparna Vaidik (Feb 2020), ‘The Hindu Way: An Introduction to Hinduism’, by Shashi Tharoor (Sep 2019), ‘Which of Us are Aryans?’, by Romila Thapar (Feb 2019), ‘Prelude to a Riot: A Novel’, by Annie Zaidi (Sep 2019), ‘Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord’, by Valay Singh (Dec 2018).

Concluding with Bloomsbury, the scales look, or looked before this controversy, a lot more balanced. Consider ‘Nullifying Article 370 and Enacting CAA’, by Sanjay Dixit (Aug 2020), ‘What Is Hinduism?’, by David Frawley (Oct 2018), ‘Who Killed Shastri?: The Tashkent Files’, by Vivek Agnihotri (Aug 2020), ‘Ready To Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case’, by Nambi Narayanan (Mar 2018), ‘The Great Indian Conspiracy’, by Praveen Tiwari (Mar 2019), ‘Amit Shah and the March of BJP’, by Anirban Ganguly (Apr 2019), ‘RSS 360: Demystifying Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’, by Ratan Sharda (June 2018), ‘Operation Lebensraum: Illegal Migration from Bangladesh’, by Hiranya Bhattacharyya (Mar 2018), ‘Mahaviri: Hanuman Chalisa Demystified’ (May 2018) and ‘Kumbha: The Traditionally Modern Mela’(Feb 2019), by Nityananda Misra, ‘Krishna Gopeshvara’ (May 2018) and ‘Krishna Yogeshvara’ (Dec 2019) by Sanjay Dixit, ‘A Long Dream of Home: The persecution, exile and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits’, by Siddhartha Gigoo (Jan 2018), ‘JNU: Nationalism and India's Uncivil War’, by Makarand Paranjape (Sep 2020), several books by Sandeep Deo (including ‘Kahani Communisto Ki’, ‘Toilet Guru’ (Sep 2019), and others), ‘The Real Modi’, by Ajay Chaturvedi (June 2018), and others.  On the other hand, it’s not as if books with a pronounced Left bias were not there - ‘Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement’, by Ziya Us Salam (July 2020), ‘Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today's India’, by Manimugdha Sharma (Oct 2019), ‘India After Modi’, by Ajay Gudavarthy (Nov 2018), to name just a few.

Garuda Prakashan, a nascent publishing house that launched in 2018 with Vivek Agnihotri’s Urban Naxals, claim they received ’30,000 pre-orders’ for Monica Arora’s book that was pulped by Bloomsbury. It is possible that this event may propel Garuda to become sustainable, and that other publishing houses may also emerge that give a voice to right-wing authors, but ceding the space that had been created with much difficulty among mainstream publishers seems like a case of two steps forward and one step back.

Even as this controversy rages, news came that another book on the Delhi riots of 2020 is slated to hit the stands in September. Titled ‘Delhi Riots: Conspiracy Unveiled’, it’s written by Aditya Bhardwaj and Ashish Kumar, the book is said to draw from a report submitted to the Union Home Minister in June 2020, and is being published by Prabhat Prakashan. The right-wing intellectual’s struggle to find a platform continues, ironically with a right-wing government at the Centre for six years now.

Views expressed are personal

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