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Ready to crawl

Why my publisher’s pusillanimity carries a warning for us all.

Written by Megha Kumar |
Updated: July 3, 2014 8:09:42 am
Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti’s objections against Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism are 21st century manifestations of the political desire to tailor history to advance ideological goals. Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti’s objections against Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism are 21st century manifestations of the political desire to tailor history to advance ideological goals.

When my book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969, was published and released by Orient BlackSwan in mid-April this year, I scarcely anticipated the controversy it would generate. The controversy has given me cause to reflect on some of the worrying implications this affair could have for the future of Indian history writing.

The book, the first of its kind, interrogates Ahmedabad’s history over a period spanning five decades, specifically examining the infliction and avoidance of sexual violence against Muslim (and in one case Hindu) women in three major episodes of Hindu-Muslim rioting the city witnessed, in 1969, 1985 and 2002. The book was published, released and sold by Orient BlackSwan in mid-April, but since then it has been withheld from sale.

Although no objection has been raised against my book by anyone, the publisher voluntarily subjected my book, possibly even others, to a fresh review for fear of legal or violent reprisals by the Hindu right. Pending the outcome of this review, my book has been withdrawn from the market, even though it had been rigorously peer-reviewed and copy-edited, as per the standard practice of academic publishers, for possible legal issues and quality-control purposes before publication. The ostensible reason Orient Blackswan has given is that, on April 14, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, served a legal notice to one of Orient BlackSwan’s older textbooks.

Orient BlackSwan’s capitulation to the SBAS has rightly outraged those who prize freedom of expression and free scholarly enquiry, and who expect the state to safeguard and, where necessary, defend these fundamental democratic rights without favour or equivocation. Particularly striking for all of us concerned is the publisher’s pusillanimity with regard to my book, and its voluntary surrender of its right to protest and contest real and perceived intimidation.

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After four years of contesting the SBAS’s lawsuit against Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, Penguin opted for an out of court settlement in February 2014, handing a major victory to an outfit devoted to blocking scholarly writing that conflicts with its skewed worldview. In Doniger’s assessment, “the book might not have been liable under any extant law. Penguin was badly advised by its lawyers”. However, in withdrawing my book, Orient BlackSwan has gone a step further: in an act of pre-emptive self-censorship it has effectively capitulated to the SBAS before any objection to my book has actually been raised.

Now, in its most recent letter to me, Orient BlackSwan appears to be heading towards setting another alarming precedent, with still more damaging implications for history writing on India. Selectively citing a legal “opinion” from senior Supreme Court advocate Soli Sorabjee, the publisher’s latest letter states that my book “may well” attract Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the offence of promoting enmity between religious communities. Accordingly, the publisher intends to contact me with paragraphs I “may be asked to revise”.

In making their case for revisions in the letter, Orient BlackSwan emphasises parts of a 1969 judgment by a special Bombay High Court bench, which held that for prosecution under 153A it is irrelevant whether the contents of a book contain historical truths. This emphasis constitutes an acknowledgement on the part of the publisher that the revisions they seek would not be in the interest of historical truth.

The publisher is thus quite literally asking me to rewrite history to suit one particular nationalist project. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as my book shows, ideologues of all political hues deployed historical discourse in the service of their nationalist agendas. The SBAS’s objections against Doniger’s book on Hinduism are 21st century manifestations of the political desire to tailor history to advance particular ideological goals. My book is at risk of being devoured by a similar desire, albeit with an important difference: Hindu rightwing groups are not actually seeking revisions in my book in this case; rather, Orient BlackSwan appears to be volunteering to accommodate political manipulation of serious scholarship to avoid an anticipated legal battle.

Their “rationale” for seeking revisions is as illogical as it is perverse. They assume my writing is “calculated to promote feelings of enmity” between Hindus and Muslims, when the book is, in fact, clearly a scholarly attempt to understand and thereby help prevent such inter-religious enmity. Indeed, my focus on the avoidance as well as infliction of sexual violence in some episodes of inter-religious conflict is aimed precisely at helping to prevent such violence. I make this intention clear on page 31 of the book: “Probing cases where [sexual violence] occurs is essential, but an exclusive focus on them risks obfuscating some important nuances of violence, and equally importantly, possible solutions for preventing it”. My book could not be seen as being “calculated to promote enmity” any more than an anti-smoking advertisement could be seen as encouraging smoking.

The underlying assumption at work here seems to be that serious history writing on issues such as communal violence and sexual atrocities “promotes” inter-religious animosity by its very existence. Clearly if this assumption is taken to its conclusion, all historical research on the negative manifestations of human and societal behaviour would be out of bounds — a profoundly disturbing thought.

My book, covering as it does the modalities of ethnic conflict and violence against women, is part of a larger historical project: that of uncovering the history of “subaltern” groups that are politically, economically and socially marginalised, such as women, religious minorities, Dalits, tribals and the poor. Historical, anthropological or sociological enquiries into the lives and experiences of such groups almost invariably expose the hegemonic power of men with a higher caste status, access to state patronage, wealth, education etc. By foregrounding these inequalities, academic research challenges the socio-political status quo, with a view to mitigating oppression and facilitating meaningful development. Suppression or dilution of such research clearly obstructs the achievement of this important goal.

Yet there are reasons to be optimistic too. The controversy surrounding my book has generated a lively debate in Indian and international media, with journalists denouncing Orient BlackSwan’s (and previously Penguin’s) decision to capitulate to attacks against free speech. Noted writers and academics have defended our right to academic enquiry unshackled by political interference or intimidation. Intrepid publishers in India and beyond have offered to publish my book, should my contract with Orient BlackSwan become untenable. This support and solidarity makes clear that history still has its defenders.

Kumar is the author of ‘Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969’

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