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It’s Batra again: Book on sexual violence in Ahmedabad riots is ‘set aside’ by publisher

Writer Megha Kumar contests Orient’s claim of its decision being a “pre-release” move, noting that the book has been on sale since April 15.

Book was put up for sale on Orient Blackswan website in April. Book was put up for sale on Orient Blackswan website in April.

A letter written by Dina Nath Batra, whose civil suit led to the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, has now led to the “setting aside” of a publication on violence against women in communal riots in Ahmedabad.

Publisher Orient Blackswan, which recently released Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969 and put it up for sale on its website in April 2014, has written to author Dr Megha Kumar saying the book needs “comprehensive assessment” and should be set aside “for the present”.

In the letter dated May 16, Orient Blackswan told Kumar, an Oxford-based Rhodes scholar, that Batra’s lawyer had written to them in April complaining that another book published by them and in print for more than 10 years, the popular textbook Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India by Sekhar Bandopadhyay, was defamatory and derogatory to the RSS.

In the light of that notice, Orient Blackswan wrote, a “pre-release assessment of books that might attract similar reactions” was being undertaken, suggesting that Kumar’s book had not been released so far. The publisher cited worries of legal proceedings and also of exposing “staff and families” of authors and publishers to “the risk of violence, endangering their life and safety”.

Kumar contests Orient’s claim of its decision being a “pre-release” move, noting that the book has been on sale since April 15. The 33-year-old also points out that the book “has been printed following thorough peer review and systematic copyediting between June 2013, when the first draft of the manuscript was submitted, and March 14, when the book went to press”.

Kumar has asked Orient Blackswan to clarify “the precise nature and scope of what you have termed comprehensive assessment” and asked the publisher to revert to her about what witholding the book for “the present” means.

Kumar’s work centres around communal and sexual violence in the Ahmedabad riots of 1969, 1985 and 2002, and is part of the ‘Critical Thinking on South Asia’ series aimed at “undergraduate and graduate students”, with emphasis on 20th Century, particularly post-1947.

When contacted, Mimi Choudhury, publisher, Higher Academic Social Sciences, Orient BlackSwan, said, “We have not withdrawn Megha Kumar’s book. We are simply reviewing it in the wake of a legal notice that was served on us by Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan for a textbook titled From Plassey to Partition… In the context of the legal notice, Orient BlackSwan has decided to identify and review again books — those already published as well as those under consideration.”

She added, “The academic merit of a book is always judged by an established academic in the field. Megha Kumar’s book will be reviewed by an academic; the recommended changes, if any, will be discussed with the author. The book will be published following the review and revision, if any.”

One of the editors of the South Asia series, Waltraud Ernst, of the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, wrote to Orient Blackswan on May 23 saying she was “absolutely flabbergasted” at the news.

“Especially as a German who is well aware of the woeful past of my country, I find it very difficult indeed to fathom the severity of what is going on here, at this day and age, in regard to what seems to me politically motivated interference with academic freedom. I would be most grateful for assurance that all this has been a mistake,” Ernst told Orient Blackswan.

Expressing “dismay” at Orient Blackswan’s stance, that too “for fear of possible legal reprisals and violence by affiliates of the Hindu right”, Kumar says: “Should these trends gather momentum in the wake of the recent electoral transition — my book is not the first to evoke such a response from a reputed publisher — there will be profound adverse consequences for academic publishing, universities and other educational institutions. Moreover, given the frequency and brutality of sexual violence against women in India, withholding research on this important subject seems particularly damaging.”

Delhi-born Kumar went to Oxford to do her doctorate and has held the Past and Present Research Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

In February, one of the world’s largest publishing houses, Penguin Random House, had announced “pulping” of Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, on a civil suit filed by Batra, the convenor of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti and a former principal.

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