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 continued…