For a country that prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, India can be unusually alacritous when it comes to banning books. This despite the fact that the first of the six rights guaranteed in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution is “freedom of speech and expression.” Consequently, a variety of means may be used to suppress a book. An outright proscription by the central government, selective prohibitions by state governments, embargos on imports or distribution by various authorities — all ostensibly "in the interests the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Apart from governmental interventions, books have also been barred by legal action or threats by organised groups. Politically motivated factions, easily taking umbrage, can destroy property, threaten publishers and bookstores, prevent authors from attending literary events or meetings. Sometimes, publishers themselves are pressurised to cancel books. All told, there are many ways to shut down or muzzle views. Especially in sensitive or volatile religious matters, books and authors become easy targets or scapegoats.
On 23rd August Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar, and Prerna Malhotra suffered a similar fate. Published by Bloomsbury India, the book was billed as an expose on the deadly Delhi riots that erupted on February 24, 2020, right in the middle of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to India. The publisher pulled back the book:
Bloomsbury India had planned to release Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story in September. … 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.
The statement added: “Bloomsbury India strongly supports freedom of speech but also has a deep sense of responsibility towards society.”
The withdrawal was met with a storm of protests, a barrage of criticism and outrage, as well as some praise and support. It all depended which side of India’s ideological divide you were identified with. Monika Arora said: “If one publisher withdraws, ten will rise. The messiahs of freedom of speech are scared of this book. They mounted a frontal attack on its writers, publisher and guests of the launch even before the book was released and one could go through it.”
Almost instantly, another publishing house offered on Twitter to pick up the book. The authors deboarded by Bloomsbury India accepted the offer. Within a week, the book’s new publisher reported advance orders of 20,000 copies. Delhi Riots had already become a bestseller even before coming into the market. On the other hand, many other authors declared that they were dumping Bloomsbury India for reneging on their contractual obligations and buckling under unfair pressure.
The book claims that the Delhi riots were “pre-planned,” engineered by a network of urban naxals and radical Islamists. In Arora’s words, “so-called leftist thinkers and intellectuals,” who had earlier mounted a false campaign that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was anti-Muslim, were bound to oppose the book. Co-author Chitalkar said that the book was based on “thorough ground research” and interviews with all the affected parties, including Muslims. “We were not biased … it is not an anti-Muslim book,” she added.
I haven’t read the book but as a prospective Bloomsbury author, I too opposed its withdrawal. As I tweeted: “Banning/withdrawing books is not the way to deal with sensitive or controversial content. When @BloomsburyIndia published a book on #ShaheenBagh, why did they withdraw the book on the Delhi riots by @advmonikaarora? Is it just double standards or an illiberal conspiracy afoot?” In any case, banning a book does not prevent its contents from circulating.
The publisher should have done its due diligence before signing the contract. Moreover, it had ample opportunities to double fact-check the manuscript during the months of copy-editing and proof-reading. Pulping the book after its publication undermines the publisher’s reliability and standing. Monika Arora, who is also a Supreme Court advocate, has, quite understandably, threated to sue Bloomsbury.
India’s “uncivil” wars have turned ugly. Allegations, counter-allegations, fake news, and false narratives are all par for the course. But controversy and publicity usually push up sales. So, albeit unpleasantly, the book may have actually benefited from the ban. Along with celebrity writers of opposing ideological dispositions, including Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen and Wendy Doniger, Arora, Chitalkar, and Malhotra join the strange company of India’s debarred and banned authors.
But Bloomsbury India is a clear loser. Its reputation is severely damaged. It has not only lost several prominent authors, but calls for its boycott may result in further financial losses. Worse, the decision to withdraw the book emanated, according to reliable sources, from its London headquarters. This only shows the continuing colonial stranglehold on Indian publishing.