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