x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

India’s publishers lose their nerve – and free speech is at risk

The free flow of academic information is being stifled, writes Amrit Dhillon.

If Indian publishers continue to be as timid as they currently appear to be, the future of free speech will be as much under threat from them as from the religious extremists who jump to ban books because of some perceived insult.

They have lost their nerve, intimidated by one Dinanath Batra, an 84-year old retired schoolteacher who campaigns to expunge anything in books that belittles Hinduism. His big victory was in February when, after a three-year legal battle, he succeeded in forcing Penguin to withdraw US academic Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History from circulation. Instead of pursuing the case to its legal conclusion, the publisher recalled all copies. Had Mr Batra been a wild-eyed fanatic threatening to burn their offices, Penguin’s stand might have been understandable. Instead, the company climbed down before the courts had even ruled in the case.

Meanwhile, the BJP led by Narendra Modi won the general election. For liberals, the fear of freedom of speech being suppressed by Hindu nationalists who would only tolerate writers who espoused their narrative on history, reared its head.

Frankly, some of this fear seems premature and alarmist. We will have to wait and see. It’s too soon to know what the Modi era will bring.

One publisher who has not bothered to wait is Orient Blackswan, publishers of textbooks and academic works. It heard that Mr Batra was campaigning to get one of its books withdrawn – Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s textbook, Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India.

Mr Batra claims that the book defames the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organisation closely affiliated to the BJP. Orient Blackswan has announced it is “reviewing” the textbook.

Then it announced that it was “setting aside” a book by scholar Megha Kumar called Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969.

No doubt, Orient Blackswan feared a reaction from Hindu extremists on Kumar’s discussion of the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.

However, Kumar has made it clear in interviews that she examines violence against women across the board in Ahmedabad, both under the BJP and other governments.

The pre-emptive withdrawal of Kumar’s book is disturbing. It is straightforward self-censorship. If the proponents of free speech are not prepared to stand up and fight for it – and perhaps no great fight would have been required in this case – who will? Orient Blackswan capitulated without even receiving a legal suit.

Many extremists are like school bullies. Square up to them and they retreat. Show fear and they get really nasty. True, it is hard for one organisation alone to take up the challenge of fighting intolerance but surely Indian publishers could join forces to present a united front?

Or campaign against the Indian law, used by people like Mr Batra, which stipulates that deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings are a crime?

Penguin set a very bad precedent by pulping the Doniger book. It has emboldened people like Mr Batra and enfeebled other publishers. If Penguin had fought right up to the Supreme Court, it would probably have won. Indian courts have in the past upheld the principle of free speech.

When the famous writer Khushwant Singh (who died recently) was told that politician Maneka Gandhi had gone to court to get his autobiography banned, Singh fought back. Six years later, in 2001, he won in the Delhi High Court.

These are difficult decisions for publishers. When property and lives could be at risk of violence, it is easy for outsiders, and columnists, to preach bravery. But with Penguin and Orient Blackswan, no threat of violence was made. It was abject capitulation of the kind that evokes memories of another bleak period in Indian history, the Indian Emergency of 1975.

During this time, the Indian press cheerfully humiliated itself, caving into government pressure to toe the line. BJP leader LK Advani observed tartly at the time: “When they were asked to bend, they chose to crawl.”

This is how slippery slopes begin – unnecessary capitulations, excessive overcaution, the conviction that your opponent is stronger, the loss of nerve. If it continues, it will stifle the free flow of ideas in academia, the media and Indian public life.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi