What the Bloomsbury India-Delhi Riots 2020 fracas highlights about the pernicious cynicism in Indian publishing

It’s true enough that Bloomsbury has a track record of publishing Hindutva propaganda. Here’s the thing, though — so does literally every other big player in English-language publishing.

Aditya Mani Jha August 27, 2020 09:31:14 IST
What the Bloomsbury India-Delhi Riots 2020 fracas highlights about the pernicious cynicism in Indian publishing

In 2014, Penguin withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History after protests by right-wing groups led by the SBA (Shiksha Bachao Andolan). Among the lawyers who had filed the petition to ban Doniger’s book was Monika Arora. Six years later, Arora has found herself at the centre of another Freedom of Expression row.

Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, a book co-written by Arora alongside Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra, was initially supposed to be published by Bloomsbury India. Last week, Twitter users noticed an advertisement for a launch event for the book, where BJP leader Kapil Mishra (who delivered a hate-speech-laden tirade in New Delhi’s Jafrabad, shortly before violence erupted there and other parts of the city) was among the guests. The book itself sought to place the blame for the Delhi riots squarely on Muslim students, activists and other people protesting against the controversial CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) — a claim that wouldn’t pass muster with any fact-checking desk on the planet.

The ensuing outrage meant that Bloomsbury first washed its hands off the event, and eventually the book itself. This prompted several liberal commentators, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap among them, to declare that they were not in favour of a ‘ban’ on the book, no matter what its contents. Gurgaon-based Garuda Prakashan will now publish the book — they have a history of publishing Islamophobic texts, so presumably Arora and co. will fit right in.

A couple of quick points before we address the truly important issue here (namely, how lax are Indian publishing’s editorial and fact-checking standards?). First, the whole affair has been incorrectly perceived as a Freedom of Expression issue — it really isn’t. Freedom of speech does not include hate speech and it certainly does not include the right to a lucrative book contract or the privilege of being published by a major international firm. As Garuda Prakashan proved, there’s any number of avenues (including self-publishing) that the authors can use to disseminate their message. Secondly, the word ‘ban’ really should not be used lightly — we were among the first nations in the world to ban The Satanic Verses in the ‘80s, remember, and since then, state and national governments have banned a great many books in India, like Great Soul, Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi (which Modi banned during his time as Gujarat CM). Ergo, we should restrict the #FoE and ‘ban’ discourse to cases where the state has repressed a book using coercive action — this is very important.

Now, to the matter at hand: Bloomsbury India, and how it handled the entire affair. When an author or authors send a book proposal to a publishing house, this is what happens typically — first, the editorial team deliberates on the book. And if they decide to back the project, they then try and convince the CEO as well as the rest of the teams: Sales, Marketing and so on. And when all of these people agree to proceed with the project and the CEO signs off, the publishing house decides to make a formal offer to the author(s).

Therefore, in this case, there are editors, sales people, finance people and marketing people at Bloomsbury India who looked at this dangerous, malicious, Islamophobic text — fiction marketed as ‘untold truth’ — and decided, ‘Yeah, let’s publish this and make some money at the expense of some of our most vulnerable citizens.’ That, to me, is despicable behaviour.

However, I would also like to inform you that singling Bloomsbury India out for this is myopic. Yes, it’s true enough that Bloomsbury has a shitty track record of publishing Hindutva propaganda.

Here’s the thing, though — so does literally every other big player in English-language publishing. And it’s about time we started calling BS on all of it.

Both Penguin Random House India and HarperCollins India are quite happy to profit off the work of Jaggi Vasudev (better known as Sadhguru), who mixes heavy-handed, faux-scientific bunkum with good ol’ Hindutva talking points. HarperCollins has also published several (terrible) books by Rajiv Malhotra, the infamous US-based Hindutva ideologue who has been caught plagiarising many times (hilariously, he once claimed that plagiarism is actually just inspiration; the Anu Malik defense). Apparently, if you have enough followers on Twitter, your manuscript does not need to be original — or you know, follow even a modicum of ethical or journalistic standards.

Former Tripura Governor Tathagata Roy, whose Twitter account reads like an Islamophobe’s bingo card, was published by Penguin Random House India in 2018; he wrote a biography of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the progenitors of the BJP. Penguin was so eager to publish Roy that they were okay with the fact that Popular Prakashan had already published his book in 2012 (after which it sank without a trace) — it is usually very difficult  for previously published books to be acquired anew (this is different from a reprint, both in terms of scale and publicity). Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, who were electoral advisors for the BJP’s successful Assam campaign, wrote a book about the experience — called The Last Battle of Saraighat, it was published by Penguin Random House India. Again and again in the book, Bangladeshi Muslims and Bengali-speaking Muslim people in Assam are conflated — this is such a massive and basic fact-checking error that one fails to understand how or why Penguin did not edit those lines.

Basically, readers need to start holding English-language publishers accountable for the questionable and cynical decisions that they make. In February, I wrote an op-ed on the state of English-language publishing in India — the Jaipur Literature Festival had just dragged peaceful protestors out of the festival venue, and once again, the spotlight was on ZEE, the openly pro-BJP media conglomerate and title sponsor of JLF. Those words are just as true for the current Bloomsbury fiasco.

“The JLF and English-language publishing in general are labouring under the delusion that they can continue to be progressive/liberal darlings while behaving like corporate centrists — profiting off low-key controversies (while ignoring much larger, urgent, human rights-adjacent ones), cozying up to those in power, making editorial choices that keep perceived ‘outsiders’ and ‘undesirables’ at arm’s length.”

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