Fate of a book on Indian democracy

Print edition : December 31, 2021

A polling booth during a panchayat election held on November 15 in Bodhgaya, Bihar. Roy Chowdhury and Keane argue in their book that democracy is “more than pressing a button or marking a box on a ballot paper. It goes beyond the mathematical certitude of election results and majority rule.” Photo: PTI

Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane co-authored the book “To Kill A Democracy”. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

John Keane, Professor of Politics in the University of Sydney Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The peculiar case of a book on Indian democracy that almost got pushed out of the Indian market but has managed to make a comeback.

Discussions about democracy, the Constitution, citizenship and human rights have dominated public discourse in the past couple of years. A new book, To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism, takes further and deepens the debate by exploring how the denial of health care, nutrition, safe drinking water, clean air and land, in addition to joblessness and livelihood crises, cumulatively contribute to the betrayal of the promise of democracy in India and ultimately promotes despotism.

The authors—Debasish Roy Chowdhury, an Indian journalist based in Hong Kong, and John Keane, Professor of Politics in the University of Sydney—reject the more comforting option of blaming the current dispensation for the way democracy has been unravelling in India and locate the causes in systemic issues. The narrative is backed up by statistics and brought alive by real-life stories, showing the rigour of academic scholarship and the curiosity that informs the best of journalism.

An Indian edition of the book by Pan Macmillan India (priced at Rs.599, 336 pages) is scheduled for release on December 16, months after a United Kingdom edition was published by Oxford University Press in late June. The book, which quickly received critical acclaim, had been originally slated for release as an Indian edition in the first week of July, according to communication received by the authors from OUP International. Unfortunately, the authors were forced to look for a new publisher when it became clear in late September that OUP India had dropped its plans for an Indian edition.

The overseas OUP hardcover edition became available for purchase in India on Amazon and Flipkart in September. But this imported edition carries a prohibitive price of Rs.995 (the Kindle edition is cheaper). Why an Indian edition by the OUP did not materialise is puzzling, given the book’s obvious relevance for Indians in these troubled times.

Also read: Fear of ideas

Roy Chowdhury and Keane submitted their manuscript to OUP International in September 2020. OUP accepted it within a couple of weeks of submission, without suggesting any revisions in its content. OUP International told the authors in April 2021 that the book would be released globally in June-end and in India (in an Indian edition printed in India) in the first week of July. In the first week of July, however, the writers were informed by their editor at Oxford (not by OUP India, stresses Roy Chowdhury) that OUP India had decided to “review” the book again.

The authors say that OUP India never explained to them why the book needed another review when it had already gone through one round of vetting for the global launch. Roy Chowdhury told Frontline: “OUP India never told us anything. Neither the review, nor the change in pricing or the decision not to print the book in India. For a while, we were in communication over reviews, local pricing, marketing, etc, but then they stopped. In hindsight, they had figured out that they wouldn’t print the book.”

After waiting for the Indian edition for a couple of months, the authors started expressing their worry about the fate of the book in the country. John Keane took to Twitter on September 15 to say: “3 months after its global publication, the promised Indian edition of To Kill A Democracy @OxUniPress is still unavailable to readers there… is this censorship, the cowardly art of killing a book?” Ten days later, he tweeted again: “yesterday, after a suspiciously long delay, To Kill A Democracy appeared in India – stillborn”. What had “appeared” was the expensive imported edition. It was clear by now that OUP India was not printing an Indian edition at a cheaper price and the authors asked to have their rights back for the South Asian edition.

OUP India’s version

Frontline contacted OUP India to ask why it had decided to import the book instead of printing a cheaper paperback edition (as the authors had been promised). The OUP spokesperson replied that “following discussions with the authors, we reached a mutual agreement to return the rights to the paperback edition of the title for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar so that they could take this process forward to suit their requirements”. About why the process took so long, the spokesperson said “an extended review process, coupled with the widespread problems currently being experienced in world freight, caused a delay to the publication schedule”. The spokesperson also emphasised that the book was “available for sale globally and via OUP India”. But, as the authors point out, this is the imported edition of the book.

Moreover, the authors insist that they asked to be given back the rights to the paperback edition for South Asia after it became clear to them from media reports that OUP India had dropped its plans to print their book in India and was importing the global edition for sale in the country.

Also read: "Censorship more covert, structural now"

Roy Chowdhury told Frontline: “We asked for the South Asia rights after we realised that OUP India, for whatever reason, was not interested in printing the book in India. It is disingenuous to claim that they chose to desist from printing in India after we took back the regional rights… Also the excuse of delays caused by world freight makes no sense because the book was supposed to be printed in India, not imported. Even within India, you would encounter logistics problems only when you actually print a book. OUP India, as far as we know, was ‘reviewing’ the book for the longest possible time; they never got to the stage of printing it…We need to distinguish between ‘publish’ and ‘print’ here. The promise was to ‘print’ in India, which OUP India reneged on, without ever giving us a reason.”

A report in The Telegraph on September 30 quoted a “spokesperson” for OUP as having said that the “sales team felt the content to be provocative”. Was this why OUP India decided to “review” the book again? In any case, OUP has not denied the report.

In an e-mail communication to Frontline, John Keane said: “As authors we were not forewarned that there would be a local review process, the contents of which were never shown to us. OUP India had agreed to publish a low-cost local edition, but at no stage did they initiate a discussion with us about why they subsequently refused to do so.” In an angry tweet on November 17, Roy Chowdhury said: “OUP India’s cowardice cost the book six months as it refused to print an affordable local edition in India (because it found the content ‘provocative’).”

For whatever reason, then, OUP India “reviewed” the book and reversed the decision to print in India. Interestingly, on May 30, days before the authors were informed of the “review” decision by their editor at Oxford, an article in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece Organiser claimed that “Debasish Roy Chowdhury is clearly politically biased towards political rivals of BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and Narendra Modi and his book To Kill A Democracy is actually written with the nefarious agenda of creating despotism in India” ('critics'-with-vested-interests-2106.html). The main focus of the article, titled “PM Narendra Modi facing ruthless propaganda from ‘critics’ with vested interest”, was Roy Chowdhury’s article in TIME magazine on May 28 in which he criticised the Modi government’s bungling the COVID vaccination programme (“Modi Never Bought Enough COVID-19 Vaccines for India. Now the World is Paying”; ). The Organiser article defended the Modi government and claimed that Roy Chowdhury’s article in TIME magazine (as well as the book) was part of a “deep-rooted conspiracy against BJP and Modi”.

Also read: Politics of ban

It is well-known that the Organiser reflects the views of the Sangh Parivar. But there is a further twist in the tale. It turns out that the writer of this article, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, is from Blitz Weekly of Bangladesh. Organiser had lifted his article from Blitz Weekly and published it on its own website. Frontline got in touch with Shoaib Choudhury to ask on what basis he had criticised the book by Roy Chowdhury and Keane at a time when it was not available anywhere in the world. Why did he think it was anti-Modi? Was it because of the title of the book? Shoaib Choudhury replied that he had not claimed that he had read the book and that his criticism was based on “previews” available online.

The book, however, was not yet published and had not been reviewed anywhere by May 30. The only place where he might have found the book listed was the site of OUP International. This site describes the book as a “radical reappraisal of Indian politics and society” and “important account of how democracies perish” and says that it shows “why democracies everywhere must fear what is happening in India”. It is difficult to imagine what is anti-Modi in this, unless any discussion on how democracies work is considered antithetical to what India’s current regime stands for. When asked whether it was usual for Organiser to republish articles from Blitz Weekly on its website, Shoaib Choudhury wrote back that both Organiser and Blitz Weekly occasionally published content from each other’s website.

Although Shoaib Choudhury’s article carries an adverse mention of the book, his real grouse is against Roy Chowdhury’s article in TIME criticising the Indian government’s handling of the COVID vaccination campaign “TIME magazine has played the vaccine card in defaming Narendra Modi…,” he wrote.

It is hard to not infer that Roy Chowdhury’s article on India’s policy flip-flop on COVID vaccination clinched the case against him for the writer of the article. (Incidentally, Shoaib Choudhury’s article did not mention John Keane, who co-authored To Kill A Democracy.)

Such an inference, coupled with media reports of OUP India finding the content of the book “provocative”, points to the worrying surmise that perhaps the book suffered because one of its authors chose to criticise the government.

Also read: Roots of Hindutva

Books and publications in India have often been politically explosive with specific groups taking offence with specific contentions made by their authors. There was, for instance, the case of James Laine, whose book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, angered certain sections who took offence at Laine’s citing of jokes about Shivaji’s parentage. OUP India eventually withdrew the book in November 2003.

The peculiar thing about the case of the book by Roy Chowdhury and Keane is that apart from the comments made by the author of the Organiser article, no group raised any objection to anything specific in the book. And yet OUP India decided not to publish it. If this is a case of self-censorship by OUP, it does not bode well for free speech.

(The writers, however, emphasise the support and encouragement they received from OUP headquarters in Oxford.)

Frontline contacted Pan Macmillan India for its comment on the matter. Teesta Guha Sarkar, who heads Pan Macmillan India’s editorial, said: “Speaking for Pan Macmillan India, I can say that we are all conscious of the risks associated with publishing books that contain opinions and points of view that may invite undue criticism, even harassment…. All in all, there is no denying that publishing is not a carefree business, but it is also worth remembering that we are in this business because we believe self-expression to be valuable in a democratic society and it is thus important to uphold our right to it.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor