Cultural Policing

Publishers as censors

Print edition : July 11, 2014

In New Delhi, a Shiksha Bachao Andolan protest against Vendi Donigar's book "The Hindus: An Alternative History". Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

In Mumbai, a Shiv Sena protest against American author James Laine for his book on Shivaji, which, they alleged, contained derogatory references. Photo: Vivek Bendre

WHILE the Human Resource Development Minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, Smriti Irani, has plans to introduce ancient Indian texts in school curriculums, the poster boy for this project is none other than Dinanath Batra, the 84-year-old retired school teacher, infamous for his campaigns to ban books that he or his Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS), perceives as anti-Hindu.

“I simply followed the law. I did not coerce or threaten anybody; that is not something I do. If the publishers are spring-cleaning and withdrawing other books, it is entirely their decision. If they felt threatened by me, why didn’t they register a police complaint?” Batra told Frontline.

Penguin set a precedent of sorts when earlier this year, it agreed to pulp all copies of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”.

So when Batra, who takes pride in successfully banning close to a dozen books (published by Indira Gandhi National Open University, National Council for Education Research and Training, and Delhi University), sent a legal notice to Orient BlackSwan against “From Plassey to Partition: A Modern History of India” by Prof. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay of the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, the publisher not only withdrew the book but initiated an assessment of its entire catalogue. When contacted, Prof Bandyopadhyay desisted from commenting on the matter which is or will be in court (he does not know if it is in court yet). He said, “I can only state that this book has been in print for a decade now, and has been translated into two Indian languages. In these 10 years, thousands of students and teachers of history across the world have read it. And until now I have received only positive feedback from them. So I am at a loss at this recent complaint.”

One of the books that Orient BlackSwan put on the market in April but withdrew in June under the garb of a pre-release review is Oxford scholar Megha Kumar’s “Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969”. It did not dispute the fact that the book was rigorously peer-reviewed and copyedited before it was published, released and sold. “So I don’t understand what this ‘fresh review’ actually entails. Moreover, OB has failed to clarify precisely how long this review will take,” said Megha Kumar.

Putting the issue in context, she added, “Penguin pursued an ‘out-of-court settlement’ with the SBAS, which by its very definition means that the law was not allowed to take its course. That the courts would have ruled against Doniger’s book cannot therefore be taken as a forgone conclusion. With regard to my book, the situation is even more curious: OB admits there has been no legal notice against my book, that is, the law has not been activated at all. So whether or not our hate speech laws are flawed and whether or not they are misused is irrelevant. The issue here is how publishers are handling academic works and their authors, and what precedents they are setting.”

Not all of Batra’s attempts have succeeded. In July 2010 the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal for forfeiture of the book “Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India” (Oxford University Press, 2003), authored by James W. Laine, Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College, United States.

In defence of the book, counsel Prashant Bhushan, while emphasising that the book is a scholarly, historical piece about a much-revered and admired historical figure of India, submitted that even if there were any critical comments about Shivaji, banning the book would strike at the very root of the fundamental right to freedom of expression in a democracy. The Supreme Court allowed circulation of the book.

Meanwhile, on June 11, a private complaint was registered in a Bangalore court against Kannada writers U.R. Ananthamurthy and M.M. Kalburgi for allegedly offending religious sentiments under Sections 295A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code.

The allegedly offensive incident in question happened decades ago, when Ananthamurthy was a child, and the book in which he wrote about it was published 18 years ago.

Divya Trivedi