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Read the fine print

india Updated: Dec 05, 2011 21:51 IST

A western spin doctor once formulated a numerical rule as regards adverse publicity. If critical stories about a prominent individual appeared in a particular newspaper, then that person would do best to ignore them. However, if these stories were picked up by other newspapers, and the controversy dragged on for more than 10 days, then the person was in trouble, and should take remedial measures.

This 10-day rule applies as much to organisations as to indi-viduals. Consider the controversy around AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas published in this country by the Oxford University Press (OUP), first in an edited collection entitled Many Ramayanas, and then in the author’s own Collected Essays. A litigant in a small town claimed the essay offended his sentiments. Rather than contest the claim, the OUP apologised (in rather craven terms), and allowed the books containing the essay to go out of print. This decision then encouraged the (reactionary or pusillanimous) vice chancellor of the University of Delhi to have the essay withdrawn from the syllabus.

The behaviour of the OUP was widely condemned by the scholarly community. Its actions were seen as a blow to the freedom of expression, and as an insult to the memory of arguably the greatest scholar in the humanities produced by India. Poet, folklorist, essayist, translator, and theorist, AK Ramanujan had a profound, enduring influence on Indian and global scholarship. That his work was being suppressed due to pressure from Hindutva bigots was particularly ironic — for his majestic translations of medieval Hindu poetry had done much to make the world aware of the beauty and depth of our mystical traditions.

The OUP’s abandonment of Ramanujan led to an outrage that was spontaneous, and worldwide. Critical articles appeared in the Indian press while a petition urging the OUP to bring the essay back into circulation was endorsed by more than 500 scholars, many of them very distinguished indeed.

The OUP is the world’s greatest (and oldest) publisher. OUP India has itself played a transformative role in nurturing Indian scholarship. A short list of OUP authors would include Shahid Amin, Kaushik Basu, Andre Beteille, Partha Chatterjee, Veena Das, Jean Dreze, Ranajit Guha, Irfan Habib, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Girish Karnad, Nayanjot Lahiri, Ashis Nandy, Sumit Sarkar, Amartya Sen, Vijay Tendulkar, and Romila Thapar. To this stellar cast of Indians one can add an equally eminent roster of the finest foreign scholars on India.

The anguish over the OUP’s betrayal of Ramanujan was in part because of the press’s reputation; in part because of Ramanujan’s own distinction; and in part because it followed on other such examples of the betrayal of scholars and scholarship. In recent years, the OUP has withdrawn books on the law, on medieval history, and on Indian nationalism under pressure from bigots and from the State.

These successive betrayals were, it now appears, a product of an obsessive concern with the bottom line. The profits the OUP makes come largely from textbooks and dictionaries, so why then care about the concerns of scholars? Indeed, when it comes to its material interests, OUP India is happy to engage in a battle in court. While it acquiesced in the suppression of AK Ramanujan’s work, it recruited some of the country’s most expensive lawyers to fight a tax case on its behalf.

This obsession with profit, so manifest in the past decade, has meant that the books produced by the OUP have often been carelessly edited and badly produced. This has led to a flight to other presses of some of its best-known authors, and (as importantly) of its best-qualified editors. It may very well be that there is no one in the OUP today who has read AK Ramanujan or knows of his intellectual standing. How else can one explain that disavowal of his work in court?

Notably, when the first series of critical articles appeared in the Indian press, the OUP dismissed it as the work of malicious or motivated individuals. This was characteristic; famous and powerful organisations think their fame and power will in itself quell all criticism. For years, the Catholic Church refused to admit that a growing number of its priests were abusing children. The US government denied that unspeakable crimes were being committed by it in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

But, as in those other instances, the criticisms would not go away. Fresh articles appeared, highlighting previous instances of the suppression of books by the OUP. Then came that cross-continental signature campaign. In meetings with top bosses in Delhi and Oxford, OUP authors expressed their anger and dismay. By now, the public shaming of the OUP had extended well beyond the 10-day period. It was time to make amends. And so the OUP has agreed to reprint AK Ramanujan’s Collected Essays, in a belated but still welcome vindication of that author, of other authors, of the history of the organisation, and of the principle of freedom of expression.

Scholars and intellectuals may have won this particular battle. But any complacency would be unwarranted. For Indi-ans who stand for the freedom of artistic expression have lost very many battles in the past. There is a long, melancholy list of writers and artists — MF Hussain, James Laine, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie et al — whose work has been suppressed in India by bigots and fundamentalists, aided by the State and political parties.

In most cases, the denial of freedom occurs because elected politicians allow goondas to get their way. In this case, it was the spine of a private organisation, the OUP, which needed stiffening. It may be much harder to get state and central governments to exchange their habitual cowardice for an unqualified commitment to constitutional values and the rule of law.

(Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History Of The World’s Largest Democracy)

The views expressed by the author are personal