IT’S an old story here, long before cancel culture became fashionable: Protests, vandalism, angry fulminations forcing a movie to change its name, or getting a book banned, pulped, or withdrawn. That’s why when Bloomsbury India withdraws Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, what is surprising is its need to peddle high-sounding pap that it’s doing so “from a deep sense of responsibility towards society.” In fact, it’s a gutless capitulation not to any principles but to a mob that wishes advocate Monika Arora and Delhi University professors Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra had written a book they want to read. The fact that much of the book reads like a compendium of Home Ministry press statements or the outpourings of an intrepid Intelligence Bureau is not the issue here, the publisher’s refusal to defend what it had decided to publish is. And in framing this weakness as moral responsibility and withdrawing from a project that needed rigorous interrogation at the very outset, not on hindsight, the publishing house cuts a very sorry figure.
It has also played right into the hands of a majoritarian narrative that caps freedom of expression with moral sanctions and makes a virtue out of cancel culture. From Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1989) to Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence (2009), India’s tryst with censorship in publishing under successive governments has been long and contentious. The clampdowns have required standing up to authority and a constant arguing of a steadfast position for freedom of expression as an enabler of constitutional rights. It is this position that protects both a protester on the street speaking truth to power and a publishing house that chooses to publish the truth as those in power see it.
From Penguin India agreeing to rescind American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) in India as part of an out-of-court settlement in 2014 to Bloomsbury India’s current decision, publishing behemoths in India have never been known for standing up to power — the spines are usually only in their books. In an age when social media and self-publishing have made the amplification of the propaganda machinery that much easier, it is who they choose to publish — or not — that defines their role in society and the market. By shifting the onus of it to public outrage, they send a clear signal: The next cancellation is a few tweets, or worse, a few stones away.