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Opinion | Bloomsbury India cares neither for freedom of speech nor for society

Faced with a controversy the company has swiftly distanced itself from a book on the Delhi violence in February. But it’s too little, too late

The flier for the book launch circulated on Twitter.
The flier for the book launch circulated on Twitter.

On 21 August, a flier posted on Twitter announced that a forthcoming book Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, written by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra, and published by Bloomsbury India, would be released by Bhupendra Yadav, a Rajya Sabha member from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the following day. The occasion would be graced by three guests of honour: writer and filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, Nupur Sharma, who is the editor of the media platform OpIndia, and Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader who gave an incendiary speech in February in New Delhi, shortly before communal violence broke out in the National Capital, leading to the death of 53 people. Apart from the images of the writers and speakers, the poster had the logo of Bloomsbury India imprinted on it.

As the news became public, a section of social media users was outraged by the association of Mishra with the event. Bloomsbury India was called out for giving a platform to a person who had allegedly incited what is widely being called a pogrom. Bloomsbury India quickly distanced itself from the event by claiming that it was not involved in organizing the event and had no knowledge of the company’s logo being used on the flier. After tweets from several writers and thinkers, including some who are published by the Bloomsbury group, the India wing of the publishing house issued a second clarification today.

"Bloomsbury India had planned to release Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story in September, a book purportedly giving a factual report on the riots in Delhi in February 2020, based on investigations and interviews conducted by the authors," the statement said, as quoted by the media-watcher website Newslaundry. “However, in view of very recent events including a virtual pre-publication launch organised without our knowledge by the authors, with participation by parties of whom the Publishers would not have approved, we have decided to withdraw publication of the book." Bloomsbury India signed off by saying that it “strongly supports freedom of speech but also has a deep sense of responsibility towards society".

The statement, coming on the heels of widespread public outrage, reads like a desperate face-saving measure. Not only does it make a mockery of the idea of freedom of speech, but it also makes Bloomsbury India’s own integrity as a publisher seriously questionable.

The withdrawal of the book, as the note by Bloomsbury India explains, is due to the company’s disapproval of the panelists present at the launch of the book. In the same breath, Bloomsbury India also affirms its commitment to freedom of speech. This is a disingenuous refusal to take responsibility for agreements that were once made in good faith between writers and publisher. Presumably, when the company signed on the book, it had done so believing in the merits of the authors and their work.

The substance of the book—“purportedly giving a factual report on the riots in Delhi in February 2020", as the publisher now puts it equivocally—seems to have satisfied Bloomsbury’s editorial standards, at least enough for the company to put its money and reputation behind it. By refusing to go ahead with the publication of the book, Bloomsbury not only contradicts its avowed stance on freedom of speech, but also seems to publicly admit to its own poor editorial judgments. As a publisher that is quick to throw its writers under the bus at the slightest provocation, Bloomsbury India may not inspire confidence in its writers in the future.

The company’s expression of its “deep sense of responsibility towards society" is even more problematic. The substance of the book, as a cursory search on the internet would reveal, is drawn from a report by a “group of intellectuals and academicians" that claimed that the Delhi violence was orchestrated by an “Urban-Naxal-Jihadi" network. The “findings" of the report were analyzed, point by point, in an article in The Wire on 6 July, which showed that most of the claims made by the report are misleading. The fact-checkers at Bloomsbury India clearly felt otherwise.

The trouble Bloomsbury India has got itself into is made worse by the fact that it is also going to publish Vivek Agnihotri, one of the guests-of-honour at the launch of Delhi Riots, who popularized the pejorative term “urban Naxal", which is now applied to anyone who dissents from the establishment point of view. His book Who Killed Shashtri? is forthcoming end of this month. Then there are others such as David Frawley, a prominent and controversial figure in the Hindutva movement, who also feature in the company’s roster. It remains to be seen how Bloomsbury India is going to balance its belief in freedom of speech and responsibility towards society in the days to come. For now, it has lost its footing on both counts.

The story will be updated with Bloomsbury India's response, if any.

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