Falling like ninepins

The Dina Nath Batra episodes show that self-censorship is an issue that publishers, writers and readers need to address seriously and urgently.

Written by Urvashi Butalia | Updated: June 24, 2014 8:17 am
We are now guided in our actions as publishers by the fear of what might happen in the future, and we are beginning to tailor our publishing to guard against this possibility. We are now guided in our actions as publishers by the fear of what might happen in the future, and we are beginning to tailor our publishing to guard against this possibility.

Dina Nath Batra must be a happy man these days. If news reports are anything to go by, he only needs “boo” at a publisher and they fall over like ninepins. The latest in this string is Orient Blackswan, which took a decision to have several of its books, about which Batra had not raised an objection at all, “vetted” in a sort of pre-emptive move that some might call self-censorship.

Batra’s objections in this case actually related to another book, a textbook that’s been in use for over a decade, and which the 84-year-old schoolteacher was clearly unaware of till recently. It could be that he is a slow reader, or that in his search to find the next book to target, he found one he felt was defamatory and derogatory about his spiritual alma mater, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. So no Section 295A here, no concern about rioting communities, just a simple case of defamation.

Such cases are easily fought in the courts and need not take four years. But why did Orient Blackswan turn its attention voluntarily to other books in its stable, asking for scholars and lawyers to vet them? Take Megha Kumar’s book on sexual violence in Gujarat, for instance: who can deny that such violence took place? Which publisher today would not want to address this serious, live question? Why, in the face of concerted action by Batra and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, have publishers been bending over backwards and not standing by their authors? And it’s not only publishers: why, we might ask, did Soli Sorabjee give the kind of interpretation of Kumar’s book that he did? Is there more to this than meets the eye?

Clearly, there is. Despite the fact that there is worldwide concern that the book has turned into a commodity, publishers, whether big or small, are perceived to be business people with a difference. While many may have a commitment to that terrible thing, profit, most also have a commitment to that nebulous thing, knowledge, and that even more difficult concept, freedom of expression. In defence of this, it is expected they should be willing to put their lives on the line.

And yet, in recent years, especially in India, it has become increasingly difficult and expensive for publishers to stand by their commitment to freedom of expression. It is not only fanatics like Batra who are opposed to this, but also often ordinary citizens, politicians, business houses and more. Witness the record of books that have not been published or have had cases filed against them in recent years: a biography of J. Jayalalithaa that has a permanent injunction against its publication in all forms anywhere in the world; a book on the history of Air India which possibly reflects poorly on a minister; one on Shivaji, whose publication was greeted with violence; an essay by A.K. Ramanujan that was removed from the history syllabus of Delhi University; and a book on gas wars in India that had a case slapped against it by a major industrial house.

But is this kind of thing a serious enough deterrent for publishers to start being careful about what they publish? Are not opposition and legal action a part of the world of publishing as much as they are of any other business? All three of the publishers targeted by Batra cited similar concerns: the possible threat of violence, concern for their employees, concern for other authors — and these are all legitimate concerns. Even though, in his defence, Batra may claim that he has never espoused violence, there is no guarantee that some off-the-wall fringe group will not take to violence. This has happened in the past, and will very likely happen again.

This, to my mind, is one of the most serious fallouts of what has happened — that we are now guided in our actions as publishers by the fear of what might happen in the future, and we are beginning to tailor our publishing to guard against this possibility.

Why blame only the publisher, though? The world of writing and publishing is made up of many more people: writers, publishers, readers and somewhere between those, the printers, distributors, retailers, academics, universities, lawyers, judges and, most importantly, the state. I recall that some years ago, we published a book entitled Shiv Sena Women. Our distributor, a reputed firm, refused to sell it in Maharashtra for fear of reprisal.

It’s important to recognise that the Batras of the world do not act alone. They are supported by political parties, by their overseas counterparts (in this case Hindu interest groups in the United States) and often, they take advantage of state inaction.

Because their actions are politically motivated, they are also not consistent. Witness this: Batra files a case against Penguin for a Wendy Doniger book. He merely sends a letter to Rupa/ Aleph about a similar book by the same author. And then he expresses himself “satisfied” with Rupa/ Aleph’s reply that the book is being read by scholars. Months later, the book is back in the shops and Batra is silent. How does Doniger’s On Hinduism become okay and The Hindus: An Alternative History remain the imaginings of a woman crazed for sex? Is there a rat to be smelt here?

No matter what the questions, and we must keep asking them, the issue is serious. When Penguin settled out of court with Batra — and the decision probably had more to do with the Bertelsmann-Penguin merger and the need to clear liabilities than anything else — they set an unfortunate precedent for others. If a house the size of Penguin can capitulate, what would happen to the smaller, independent and not so well resourced publishers? What would happen to our commitment to freedom of expression? If nothing else, the Batra episodes should teach us that self-censorship is an issue we need to address seriously and urgently, for it can mean the death of publishing. Publishers have begun to talk about forming associations for the freedom to publish. It is time writers, readers and others fought for the freedom to write and read.

The writer is founder, Zubaan Books

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  1. I
    indian
    Jun 25, 2014 at 1:49 am
    Pseudosecularism at its very best. No mention of banning Salman Rushdie's books.
    Reply
    1. A
      Arun Kumar
      Jun 24, 2014 at 6:59 am
      Calling Batra a fanatic just because he differs from your viewpoint and follows the legal course to right what he feels is wrong is itself fanaticism of the left liberals if not downright fascism.
      Reply
      1. D
        Deepak Jain
        Jun 24, 2014 at 6:27 am
        How can one point fingers at Batra for approaching the legal system to redress what he thinks is wrong? If the courts listen to him, either something is wrong with the laws or with the content being published!
        Reply
        1. S
          SSM
          Jun 24, 2014 at 2:36 am
          Where was this author when Rajiv hi banned Midnight's Children and Sonia hi banned various books/movies about herself and Indira hi banned just about everything during Emergency? Smells like hypocrisy to me.
          Reply
          1. A
            anand
            Jun 24, 2014 at 5:04 pm
            Court hadn't come out with any decision ..and there hardly was any chance of a decision that would order to pulp the books. That's why this out of court settlement is a disturbing incident. So we can very well ume that things can be wrong with Mr. Batra's complaint also, can't we!?
            Reply
            1. G
              Gangu true
              Jun 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm
              honestly say that Publishers and Authors do not intentionally add such e so as to get name, fame, sells and money? Dont write against Batra old man. He goes to Court. And if a 84 year old manages to make money through such actions, socialistically speaking, looking at his age, even that isnt bad compared to young Authors and money hungry publishers?
              Reply
              1. S
                Stephen Stephen
                Jun 24, 2014 at 12:53 pm
                NO book should be banned because it upsets someones sentiments. Just do not read the book if you do not like the book. Do not buy the book but we should never stop publishing a book because of sentiment. Reading a book or opinion is how you learn about the opinions, feelings and emotions of others. Remember it was the s that banned and burnt books so that they could have everyone read only about their idealism! It never works. Why do we think that Batra has all the answers about being a Hindu? He is just one person. We must allow others to offer their voices or opinions even if they are wrong and we do not like them. We all have the right in a democracy to voice their opinion!
                Reply
                1. S
                  Stephen Stephen
                  Jun 24, 2014 at 12:55 pm
                  The case should never be in the courts unless it is a slander and in this case we know it is not about that. The problem is that this is about another persons opinion and it should never be in a court of law! Sentiments should not be judged in government or law!
                  Reply
                  1. S
                    Singh
                    Jun 24, 2014 at 4:01 pm
                    UB Is it required to look pathetic on hairdo to look writer. Bashing Hinduism is new Mantra to get publicity.
                    Reply
                    1. s
                      shyamraj n.g.
                      Jun 24, 2014 at 7:53 am
                      Why harp on Batra and not on the minister who has stopped Air India History or on the industrial house which stopped the book on gas pricing? Do we smell something? Most certainly. How does the writer refer to Batra as a 'fanatic" - that itself is defamatory. Batra has done only what is legally within his right. How does one become a 'fanatic' if one approaches the Indian Courts?
                      Reply
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