Censorship by other means, Dinanath Batra shows the way
Batra, a former general secretary of the RSS-run Vidya Bharati network of schools, is not a recent phenomenon.
The publishing industry's inexplicable surrender to RSS worker Dinanath Batra's recent barrage of demands to cleanse their books on Indian history of "anti-Hindu" content seems to have created a quick and easy censorship model that is likely to be a quite a hit with the religious fringe.
With every new legal notice, Batra is setting new records in terms of the speed and efficiency with which he can get publishers to pulp and review books that he doesn't like.
After Penguin India volunteered to pulp Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History and opted for an out-of-court settlement with Batra and Aleph Book Company had Doniger's On Hinduism examined by lawyers and scholars in response to another such notice, Orient BlackSwan, a Hyderabad-based publishing house, has become the latest victim of Batra's intimidatory tactic.
Batra feels Sekhar Bandopadhyay's Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India published by Orient BlackSwan contains "hate propaganda against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh" and has warned the publishers in his legal notice that if they don’t withdraw "the objectionable paragraphs from the BA Third Year History book", he would "agitate against this book by all democratic means including public awareness at the national level".
Much to Batra’s delight, Orient BlackSwan has decided to review not just Bandopadhyay's book but also 'set aside' another recently published book titled Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969.
"Batra is setting himself up as somebody who is using the law to be a private censor… He is one of a number of Indians who think they should have the right to tell other people how to think. There are lot of people like him who will eventually see the profit in using the law like this," warns author Nilanjana Roy.
But why are publishing houses so afraid of taking on Dinanath Batra in a court of law? Especially when, as legal experts like Saurav Datta have pointed out, the judiciary has a laudable record of upholding the freedom of speech.
Among the many landmark judgements where courts have upheld the right of authors is the 2010 Supreme Court verdict that lifted the ban on James Laine's book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India over which a right-wing Hindu group had vandalised the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune.
Roy believes publishers fear taking on Batra legally for two reasons. "One is the fear of suddenly being at the receiving end of mob violence. That is a legitimate fear. You have to take that seriously after what happened to Bhandarkar library… Some of the publishers feel their hands are tied because of this constant threat of violence and they feel that the state does nothing to protect them from that violence. The second part is being a little too intimidated by these laws. We have bad laws and the process is long. But the way to deal with bad laws in a country like India is to challenge them," says Roy.
The reason Batra elicits this kind of panic reaction from publishing houses, says Datta, is because of the might of the Hindu Right that stands behind him.
"Batra is not a fringe element and he is not acting alone. If he didn't enjoy patronage would be dare to thunder so much?" says Datta.
The legal notices, says the media law and jurisprudence expert, have more intimidation value than they do legal merit.
"If you see these lawsuits, they aren't filed in ignorance of courts' judgements which these people know aren't in their favour. But it is the tedious legal process which is harrowing. Also, substantive law doesn't protect anyone from being roughed up on the street or outside the court premises," says Datta.
There is also, of course, the cold logic of business that many would argue publishing houses simply cannot ignore.
Penguin’s dubious defence (of deciding to pulp Doniger's book even before the court had a chance to pass its judgement) that it was following the law of the land, when it was really taking a business call, didn't cut any ice with anyone who was half-way acquainted with the case.
"Penguin’s was a business decision, plain and simple…Unfortunately, for many publishers it has become a business decision. They are doing a cost-benefit analysis, which should not be the case. A publisher is in the business of books. But a publishers are not mere book-sellers. They owe a higher responsibility to scholarship and freedom of expression. And by cowering in fear or by taking craven decisions, publishers are abdicating their duty," says Datta.
Batra, a former general secretary of the RSS-run Vidya Bharati network of schools, is not a recent phenomenon. Much before he and his Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti began their campaign on publishing houses, it was the NCERT history textbooks that bore the brunt of his mission to cleanse them of content that according to him “defamed Hinduism." (Read full report here)
"I don’t think we should be shocked that Batra has struck again. It is not the first time, this group has tried to sanitise history. They have never given up that goal. They are not saying this is censorship per se. Yes, if you look at this particular episode it is an act of censorship. But if you look at the overall picture, it is just a part of their larger agenda. The Hindu Right has always wanted history to be rewritten to suit its politico-religious agenda," says Datta.
All the more reason for publishers to stand up for their authors and not cave in to demands made by Batra and his ilk.
Underling the point that "in independent India not a single mainstream publisher has ever been imprisoned under any provision of the law", Aarti Sethi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta in their ‘legal primer’ to the publishers on "what (not) to do when Dinanath (and other busybodies) strike" write, "If publishers feel that they can protect themselves and their interests through gratuitous self-censorship they are basically agreeing to lose the war before even entering the battle. Nothing can be more detrimental to the interests of readers than publishers who refuse to be responsible to the ethical demands of their own vocation. To be a publisher who refuses to stand by his/her writers and readers, is like being a doctor who violates the Hippocratic oath." (Read full post here)
Although the publishing industry has so far refused to take a stand against the Batra menace, the growing outrage among authors and concerned citizens is beginning to have an impact, says Roy.
"Many who are very senior in publishing are beginning to take stock of this and beginning to realise that they have to approach this differently… I would like to see them find their collective voice. There is so much they could do in terms of running campaigns. I do think they are under-playing their strength. There is no reason to not fight back. The frustration among authors is growing by the day because of the feeling that they are being let down by initiating reviews of books that have already gone through the editors… It would change the scenario completely if we had publishers speaking out together and saying something as simple as ‘we will defend books, we will defend authors.'"
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