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Bloomsbury India dropping 'Delhi Riots 2020' doesn't amount to a ban on the book

Questioning a publisher’s choice does not undermine the author’s right to speak. The author can, and often does, go to other publishers

In his recently-published memoir, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie recounts the events that led the Indian government to ban the import of his novel, The Satanic Verses, into India in late 1988. Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters
In his recently-published memoir, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie recounts the events that led the Indian government to ban the import of his novel, The Satanic Verses, into India in late 1988. Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters (Paul Hackett/Reuters

The controversy over the publication of Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story raises profound questions about freedom of expression, the role of a publisher, and the nature of public discourse around a book. These questions are necessary and essential.

In rapidly-moving developments over the weekend, the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury India, said it wouldn’t publish the book after all, since it found that the authors were to speak at an online event where the invited speakers included some that Bloomsbury would not approve of, and because its logo was used without approval. Bloomsbury didn’t name anyone, but the guests included Kapil Mishra, the Bharatiya Janata Party politician who has been accused of making one incendiary speech in the days preceding the riots in north-east Delhi in February. Other guests included film-maker Vivek Agnihotri—Bloomsbury is publishing his book on former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Monika Arora, one of the authors of Delhi Riots 2020, blamed “leftist-fascists" for applying pressure on the publisher, and one web portal and a few commentators (including Agnihotri) zeroed in on William Dalrymple, whose books Bloomsbury has published, implying that a few authors on Bloomsbury’s list (including Dalrymple) had instigated the publisher’s parent to act. The book will appear; another publisher, Garuda Prakashan, has stepped in.

Delhi Riots 2020, which Arora has co-authored with Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra, offers a view that appears to be broadly sympathetic to the Hindu right. It reportedly blames the violence in Delhi earlier this year on what it calls a Jihadi-Naxalite conspiracy —of the 53 people who died, 36 were identified as Muslim and 15 as Hindu.

To be sure, there was an uproar among some writers, but it was over Mishra’s presence as a speaker at the event, whose publicity suggested Bloomsbury was hosting the event, since its logo was shown on the poster. A few asked Bloomsbury what was going on, and a few more expressed dismay; some readers said they wouldn’t buy Bloomsbury titles. I did not see anyone calling for the book to be banned, but some people may have made such a call.

Banning books is wrong. At the same time, laws in virtually every jurisdiction around the world permit some restrictions on books. Most such restrictions are unjustified and publishers must have the freedom to publish. At the same time, publishers also have the right to refuse to publish books, including the right to change their minds even after committing to publishing a title. In some instances, those decisions are practical; at other times, cowardly.

The best way to confront a contentious book is to argue with it. Questioning the publisher’s choice to print a title can be called censorship only if those questioning the book don’t want it to be published at all.

Books on controversial topics are essential in a democracy. India has a long and unfortunate tradition of banning books, including nationwide bans or import restrictions on Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold in the 1950s, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960s, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the 1980s, and at the state level, the West Bengal ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhondito in 2003, and Gujarat’s bans on Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence in 2009 and Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India in 2011. Note, all political parties — the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the left—have done this.

Ideas must be debated. When a publisher decides to publish a specific interpretation of a factual event (like the Delhi riots), it is fair to assume that the publisher sees merit in that interpretation, and considers it to be worthy of public scrutiny. As long as the debate isn’t violent, such scrutiny is welcome, even if robust, including questioning the publisher’s editorial judgement.

And yet, those questioning Bloomsbury are mischaracterized as calling for censorship or a ban. That’s hilarious. Apocalyptic terms are tossed around, speaking of “mobs" bent on “bullying" Bloomsbury; using hyperbolic terms such as “fatwa", “Charlie Hebdo moment", “book burnings" and “de-platforming", all of which reveals ignorance about those terms, or cynical and deliberate cheapening of the discourse to appeal to the social media crowd. It is also disingenuous. Many of those supporting Delhi Riots 2020 (with maybe a few possible exceptions) weren’t exactly vocal when Dina Nath Batra got Penguin to drop Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, or when Perumal Murugan was being silenced, or when the yoga instructor-turned-businessman Ramdev used courts to restrain Priyanka Pathak Narain’s Godman To Tycoon: The Untold Story Of Baba Ramdev. They are fair-weather friends of free speech, a cause they claim to espouse today but which they don’t necessarily believe in or understand.

Freedom of expression means just that; people should be free to express what they wish. It does not impose an obligation on others to listen. Questioning a publisher’s choice does not undermine the author’s right to speak; the author can, and often does, go to other publishers. Nor does an author’s freedom to speak impose any obligation on any publisher to publish the book.

Publishers do withdraw books if the book doesn’t meet their standards, or if there are contractual breaches. Some publishers have had to pull titles because of court orders, intimidation, plagiarism accusations, facts that can’t be substantiated in a non-fiction work, or if the title might pose risk of physical harm to the publisher’s staff, its distributors, or others. Some reasons may be justified; some may be convenient excuses.

Sometimes a book represents a cause so important that the publisher must take all risks, as the late Peter Mayer did when he published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa was an existential challenge to the author, the publisher, and to the right to speak without fear. Other decisions to publish or to scrap a title can be questioned. Some decisions are defensible—in 2008, a publisher pulped a title because the author, Ron Evans, could not back up his claims. Evans had written a so-called memoir (which he later admitted had inaccuracies) of the time when he said he was in the team that protected Rushdie during the years he needed protection from the Iranian fatwa. More recently, Hachette withdrew Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos Of Nothing, after Hachette employees objected to the book (later published by Arcade). Mayer’s Penguin was right to publish The Satanic Verses; Hachette was wrong on Allen; withdrawing the so-called bodyguard’s memoir was a prudent choice.

Bloomsbury’s response bears the hallmark of risk mitigation strategy—protect the brand from a crisis the company had not anticipated. It perhaps needs to introspect on what kind of publisher it wishes to be. Readers and writers will arrive at their own conclusions. Some will leave because a specific title is being published; some will leave because a specific title is withdrawn. That’s life. We need a sober, adult conversation, not loaded, poorly-understood terms like “censorship", “mob-bullying", “cancel culture", or “de-platforming", however alluring they might sound.

Salil Tripathi is a regular contributor to Mint. Based in New York, he chairs PEN International’s Writers-in-Prison Committee.

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