Suppression of free speech by the state is not new in India. There is enough governmental machinery, like the Constitution and laws, to arm-twist writers into silence. But the Kerala government has gone one step further in what can be seen as an attempt to perfect the process, which is to target the staff of the publishing company that published the work.
In the first week of June, Kerala state police raided the office of Current Books, a leading publishing house in Malayalam, for the “crime” of having published an autobiography titled Sravukalkkoppam Neenthumbol (Swimming with Sharks) written by Jacob Thomas, the most senior IPS officer in the state. Thomas, who came into limelight for his anti-corruption drive, has been under suspension for the past 18 months. His “crime” is that he violated service rules by not seeking permission from the department before publishing his autobiography, and for allegedly revealing official secrets that he had access to in his official capacity. A criminal case has been registered against him for this. Read in Malayalam
The state police action against Current Books, led by a Superintendent of Police, was claimed to be part of the investigation regarding this violation of service rules by Jacob Thomas. They spent about four hours taking statements from the staff who were involved in composing, proof-reading, and editing the text. They also asked for all the correspondence that had taken place between the publisher and the writer.
The police action has come two years after the book was first published in May 2017. As Peppin Thomas, the managing director of Current Books and the publication manager, K J Johny, pointed out, the book has not been accused of any controversial material that could cause a law and order problem. The publisher has been dragged into a fight involving the state and the writer/officer.
Censorship is usually a coercive or suppressive process mainly involving the writer and the state, and other stakeholders are largely left alone. It is true that publishers have been at the receiving end before — Oxford University Press being forced to withdraw their A K Ramanujan anthology and Penguin having to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book are recent examples. But there was no police action against them. The publishing houses undertook these measures in the face of public anger and vandalism. These were publishing giants who could hold their own, if needed, in the face of state persecution. But what the Kerala state has now done is to tighten its tentacles of power on composers and proof readers, those faceless and nameless workers behind literary publications. In a bizarre way, the state has recognised the value of these sweat-shop workers.
It is clear that the government sees writing not just as the outcome of the individual creative imagination of the writer but as a material product that has undergone multiple mediatory levels like composing, proofreading and editing. Theoretically speaking, the work can be “censored” at these levels. The composer of a text, if she is mindful about the job, can point out potentially problematic elements of a text before it goes to print. So can the proof reader or the editor whose job of editing can very often include censoring. Thus the government seems to have made a censor out of each mediator of the publishing process, by ensuring that it is vetted at multiple levels. Intolerance of dissent becomes serious when restrictions get internalised by the writer, and she begins to exercise self-censorship. It is far worse if every player in the game turns a referee, who has to watch out for potentially foul moves.
D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in its unexpurgated version was first published privately in Italy in 1928. It is said that it was an advantage for the book that the typesetters were Italian; the publishers feared that the typesetters might object if they understood what they were composing. Will writers in India face a similar situation where they will be forced to look for people who will compose without knowing what they are composing?
It is sheer coincidence that this move to persecute the publisher occurred in June when the anniversary of the Emergency falls, when even type-setters were closely watched for possible transgressions. But it is bitter irony that this tragedy of state persecution has repeated itself as a farce when politicians who were at the receiving end of the Emergency are ruling the state.
Chandran, the author of The Writer, the Reader and the State: Literary Censorship in India, teaches at IIT-Kanpur