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THE ONSET OF FEAR

- The State must be seen to give protection from hooliganism

Pusillanimity is in the air; and a section of the publishing industry is leading all others in practising it. Sometime ago Penguin India had withdrawn Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in an out-of-court settlement with an obscure outfit called “Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti”, led by Dina Nath Batra, which had gone to court against the book. In a lame defence of its action, it had put the blame for it on Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which makes publishing a book that offends religious sentiments a criminal not a civil offence. Now, Orient Blackswan has followed the lead of Penguin India by capitulating to the same outfit, without putting up a fight.

Dina Nath Batra’s lawyer sent a legal notice to Orient Blackswan on April 14, 2014, accusing them of publishing a book that was defamatory and derogatory to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The book in question was Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India, which was a text book that had been in print for more than a decade and was described by the publisher as a “careful history, written in the best traditions of historical writing”. While the company sent what they call “an appropriate reply” to the legal notice on that book, they decided to have a pre-release assessment of all books “that might attract similar reactions”.

One of the books held up for such assessment is written by Megha Kumar, a brilliant young academic at Oxford who has recently completed her PhD from that university on a Rhodes Scholarship from India. It is called Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969. It had been printed and released; nonetheless it is now set aside for re-review, in spite of having been already reviewed before its publication, and found scholarly enough to deserve to be published.

It may appear at first sight that this re-review is an innocuous affair, that a publishing company is merely taking routine precautions against possible legal action, which one should not cavil at. But the letter from the company to Kumar clearly states that the re-review is not concerned solely with the question of whether the book can cause legal proceedings. It says: “Quite apart from the legal proceedings, our concern is that our authors, our staff and the families of both, could be exposed to the risk of violence, endangering their life and safety.”

In other words, the re-review would also take into account whether the book is going to annoy hooligans into perpetrating murder and mayhem on the author and the publishing staff. Of course, dragging in the author here is a fig leaf: authors are not little children who need to be protected by the publishers; most authors are perfectly capable of looking after their own safety. What the company is saying in effect is that they cannot publish a book if hooligans get after them for doing so.

This in fact is the real crux of what the company is saying. The reference to legal proceedings is a red herring. There is actually a technical difference between the Penguin India case and the one relating to Orient Blackswan. In the former, the issue related to section 295A of the IPC, which talks of hurt to religious sentiments. In the case of Orient Blackswan, the objection against the only book which has been actually targeted until now is not that it hurts any religious sentiment but that it is derogatory and defamatory to the RSS. Indeed, unlike Doniger’s book that was about Hinduism, all the books of Orient Blackswan that are under scrutiny are marked by the common trait that none of them deals with religion. So the question of even attracting 295A simply does not arise.

True, they could attract defamation charges, but if the books are scholarly, which the pre-publication review must have established, then their assertions must be based on ‘facts’, in which case they are no more defamatory in a legal sense to anybody than the statement that the Manmohan Singh government was steeped in corruption is defamatory to Singh. So, the fear usually associated with attracting legal proceedings should not arise: section 295A does not apply to these books, and the charge of defamation can be countered with ‘facts’. The publishers, in short, are simply withdrawing books in the name of re-review because they are worried that they would be attacked by hooligans for publishing them. They fear that the hooligans would consider them ‘offensive’, even though the scholarly merit of the books is not in doubt.

Ironically, Kumar’s book cannot even be considered hostile to the Bharatiya Janata Party. It deals with the issue of violence against women during communal riots, taking into account three episodes in Ahmedabad. The first two occurred when the Congress was in power both at the Centre and in the state and the last occurred during Narendra Modi’s tenure, in the aftermath of Godhra, when the Centre too had a BJP government. Kumar, in short, is not associating communal riots in the state with the fact of a BJP government being in office. BJP governments are not particularly singled out by her; so there is no reason for her to be attacked by the Hindutva forces. But the publishers think otherwise, and perhaps rightly so, since hooligans do not go by logic.

It is not clear how her publishers would find an honourable way out of the mess they have created for themselves. They cannot now suddenly announce that they will distribute the book as it is; for then Dina Nath Batra’s outfit, even if it was oblivious of Kumar’s book until the controversy arose, would move in with its objections; it will not let go a golden opportunity to raise a ruckus. They cannot publish the book with a few changes, for, even if that course was acceptable to all, the author, the publisher, and Dina Nath Batra, some new outfit, or even a splinter of Batra’s outfit, can still rebel against this agreement and take on the role of hooligans in the new context. Batra, after all, does not have monopoly control over the hooligans. Willy-nilly, therefore, the publishers are likely to be pressed into withdrawing the book ‘for good’. The logic of pusillanimity in the face of hooliganism may leave them little choice.

But why should one blame the publishers? One cannot, after all, take umbrage at the display of pusillanimity even if it leaves one dissatisfied. One cannot consider pusillanimity, even if dishonourable, to be immoral. It is unfair to expect of every individual or entity that it should stand up to hooliganism disregarding the costs of doing so.

Indeed, the role of the State is precisely to ensure that individuals and entities, irrespective of the resources at their command, are protected against hooliganism. What the Orient Blackswan position reveals, apart from their own pusillanimity, which one cannot deny but should not decry, is their perception of the present Indian State. They basically do not trust the present Indian State to protect them against attacks by a bunch of Hindutva hooligans.

Can one blame them for this? There have been numerous incidents of Hindutva hooliganism since the new government took office at the Centre, the most notable being the murder of the Pune information technology professional, Mohsin Shaikh, by persons allegedly owing allegiance to the Hindu Rashtra Sena, and the attacks on bakeries and shops owned by the minority community that followed it. But there has been no word of condemnation from the prime minister of such hooliganism or even routine appeals to people elated over his victory to observe restraint. The Hindutva hooligans naturally feel emboldened that their day has arrived and that the State would henceforth turn a blind eye to their shenanigans. It is understandable if publishers fear that these shenanigans might be carried to their premises.

Just consider the contrast. The British bourgeois State provided security to Salman Rushdie at its own expense against the threat to his life, even though Rushdie had earlier been a strong Left-wing critic of that very State. Here in India the State cannot even be relied upon to protect a reputed publisher against the hooliganism of the supporters of those in power.

We can talk of India’s emergence as a ‘modern nation’ till the cows come home; but it remains a chimera if the bourgeois State fails in its elementary duty of providing security against hooliganism. Likewise, we can talk of improving the quality of our higher education till the cows come home; but it remains a chimera if the brightest of our young academics cannot publish their research work in this atmosphere of fear.