The law might be an ass. But why is Penguin being a chicken?

by Akshay Pathak

On one of my several visits over the last year to the village of Idinthakarai - the epicentre of the people's protest against the monstrous nuclear power plant at nearby Kudankulam - I was sitting with Melrit, who recounted her long journey in this struggle - being beaten, arrested, harassed, humiliated. I kept my notebook aside and asked her simply: Why is she doing this? "To save the sea" she said as a matter of fact. A simple fact for which she and thousands of others have put their lives on hold and in danger.

Image courtesy Akshay Pathak

Image courtesy Bhavin Patel

So then it is with an adequate amount of disgust that I received the news of the lords and ladies at Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd. (A part of Pearson, Financial Times, Bertelsmann and god-knows-what-else) deciding to withdraw a book - Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History, and agreeing to 'not sell, publish and distribute' it in India and pulp the remaining copies.

For a powerful publishing house that announces each award they win within minutes of receiving it, it took Penguin almost a week to even issue a statement. In fact it was the busybody Mr Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan who took the lead in breaking the news to the media. Penguin had been stonily silent about the settlement. Moreover, their statement is a bit of joke - where they contradict their own idea of protecting freedom of speech when they try to justify the settlement. It states:

"Penguin Books India believes, and has always believed, in every individual's right to freedom of thought and expression, a right explicitly codified in the Indian Constitution. This commitment informs Penguin's approach to publishing in every territory of the world, and we have never been shy about testing that commitment in court when appropriate." 

And 'appropriate' or selective courage is something quite dangerous we all know. Penguin did not even wait for the 'test' results of their so-called 'commitment'. They did not dare to fight. Just a month ago another multinational publisher- Bloomsbury - incidentally one who was till some years back being represented in India by none other than Penguin - decided to withdraw the book The Descent of Air India by Jitender Bhargava, a retired senior-level staff member of Air India, for fear of it being defamatory. Some of us did express our displeasure at that. The publisher there took a 'stand' and apologised to the Union Minister Praful Patel. What more can one say to a corporate publishing house that has openly declared its lack of spine?

This act of sheer cowardice (or some even suggest it to be a clever tactic!) comes as no surprise. One must remember however that the publishing industry is fragmented. Several associations - Federation of Indian Publishers, Association of Publishers in India, Federation of Publishers' and Booksellers' Association in India - fight each other to get subsidies, invitations to international book events or just hold some office of power. No wonder then that we have not heard a 'defence' or clarification of any of these book withdrawals.

Several people claim that the problem is the law - supposedly Sections 153 (A) and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) etc - and we cannot blame the publishers. That our priorities need to be about protecting freedom of speech. Such noble thoughts come at a time of crisis it seems. What was the publishing world doing all this while about this law? And I say this not as an outsider but as someone who has spent time inside this world of words.

Just a few years ago all the publishers' associations - birds and beasts of all colors and hues- came together and spent a lot of time, energy and possibly money to lobby to halt a certain clause in the copyright amendment bill which they claim could have drastically affected their businesses. They even spent a fortune to get Nielsen Book Scan in India to help them track sales etc. So the message is clear: We unite to protect our profits. While Melrit in Kudankulam fights for the sea, people in publishing brave selection processes and scramble to get on a panel at the scores of literature festivals branded by a DSC/Rio Tinto/Tata/Google/Zee etc or get free trips to Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual extravaganza for the publishing industry and my previous employer. Courage seems to diminish with privilege.

I am aware that several people are going to point out to the many 'brave' moments of publishing bold books. But what else is a publisher to do? Take bravery awards for publishing books on how to lose weight? The balance sheet of morality is not an exercise worth any pat on the back. It is what any self-respecting publishing house must follow. Yes, it is a nightmare to constantly do the rounds of the courts but in a democracy and as a guardian of free speech and justice who does not? The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) in Kashmir, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy and many many others have all sorts of criminal and civil cases slapped against them - as bad as sedition - but they fight on. And mind it they do not have the lawyers' expense as just another budget head on their Profit and Loss statements. They are not worshiping justice to maximise profits. This I know would be dismissed as hyperbole. That it is not a publisher's job to be an activist. But in a context where sympathy is being extended to a rich powerful corporate for having to go to courts I am forced to make this comparison.

But the problem is deeper. The publishing industry is by and large run by upper caste upper class individuals often as inheritors of family businesses or people who got jobs because mummy or daddy is powerful enough. Of course there are exceptions and like most exceptions they prove the rule. So this moment of wailing seems ludicrous even on my part. Like most structures of power the publishing world has been the instrument of control by a certain brahminical class which lives in a bubble. Publishing a radical book here and there has not transformed much in the industry or else we would not be at this juncture.

Do publishers have policies on adequate representation of Dalits and other socially disadvantaged groups? Are there sexual harassment enquiry committees in each publishing house? Has anyone from Penguin quit as a mark of protest against the withdrawal of the book? Only authors seem to have 'threatened' but are other publishers raising their voice against the flight-less and not-so-random bird? It is not that there are no brave souls in publishing and it is not that we must lose all hope. These few incidents are a reminder of what is at stake and how we might silence the existing brave voices in an atmosphere of such shameless censorship and cowardice. The pulping of this book is, in fact, the pulping of the very principles the publishing world ought to uphold.

A petition has just been initiated by scholars (not publishers!) to revise the sections of IPC and I urge everyone to sign that.

Akshay Pathak was formerly the director of the German Book Office, New Delhi, and office of the Frankfurt Book Fair. He is now a writer based in Pondicherry.

Updated Date: Feb 14, 2014 18:00 PM

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