Essay: Free Speech or Hate Speech? The Curious Case of Bloomsbury India
Indian twitter is witnessing a pitched battle over the fate of the book Delhi Riots 2020 with followers of the Hindu Right accusing Indian Left Liberals of promoting cancel culture
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” wrote author Evelyn Beatrice Hall in a biography called The Life of Voltaire (1903). Originally meant to celebrate the beliefs of the French philosopher she was writing about, this statement is now routinely invoked in discussions about freedom of speech in India. The implication is that freedom should be absolute, not subject to conditions or restrictions. How should one account for speech that is considered divisive, hateful and inflammatory?
This old question has resurfaced with the social media call to demand accountability from Bloomsbury India for their decision to publish Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story written by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra. The upcoming book shot to overnight fame when a poster announcing its launch on August 22, 2020 went viral on Twitter. Several authors, intellectuals and activists were shocked to find that the book was being launched by BJP politicians Bhupendra Yadav and Kapil Mishra along with Nupur Sharma, editor of the right wing news portal OpIndia, and filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri.
Tabish Khair, author of books such as How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2012) and Night of Happiness (2018), tweeted, “They are publishing an anthology that basically, from my perspective, blames the victims of Delhi riot 2020, and inviting as chief guest a politician whose call for ‘action’, many feel, led to the riots. It will sell. But enough is enough.” He further stated, “I can accept their publishing the antho, as I am against censorship. Even shit can be published. I would not publish with them but I won’t ask them to drop any book. But their selection of the chief guest is an in-your-face or very callous political gambit.”
As the protest against Bloomsbury India became louder, it drew more voices calling out the BJP’s complicity for bloodshed in Delhi in February 2020 and the publisher for backing them. Did the protestors read the book they found problematic? If a specific book was regarded as incendiary, what inspired the call to boycott the entire publishing house? Would this boycott mean that they would stop reading Margaret Atwood, William Dalrymple, JK Rowling, Khalid Hosseini, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kamila Shamsie and others who publish with Bloomsbury?
None of this was clear but Bloomsbury India needed to do some damage control, so they released a statement: “Bloomsbury India had planned to release Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story in September, a book purportedly giving a factual report on the riots in Delhi in February 2020, based on investigations and interviews conducted by the authors. 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. Bloomsbury India strongly supports freedom of speech but also has a deep sense of responsibility towards society.”
Bloomsbury India refused to answer follow-up questions on the authors’ credentials, the protocols set up for due diligence and fact-checking, and how the online outrage influenced their decision. Some other questions went unanswered: Did they approach the authors or did the authors approach them? Was this book part of a pay-to-publish programme that isn’t unusual in the publishing industry, alongside commissioned books? Would withdrawal of publication mean that the authors are expected to return their advance payments for the book?
Bloomsbury India’s statement has also affected other authors who have published with them. Ziya Us Salam, co-author of Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement (2020) with Uzma Ausaf, and author of Women in Masjid: A Quest for Justice (2019), says, “Soon as Bloomsbury India announced they were withdrawing Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, trolls began to attack me for writing the book Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement. The publisher is the same but these are two different books. When people started maligning me, and threatening my family, I apprised the publisher of my plight. They understood it was not my responsibility as an author to deal with the criticism for another book they have chosen to publish.”
He is aware that readers may not like a book, and authors must be willing to take that in their stride. However, he is critical of “organized propaganda” with people writing “nasty reviews” for his book and also Seema Mustafa’s edited volume Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India (2020) on online retail platforms, “possibly without even reading these books.” He firmly believes that the women of Shaheen Bagh stood up for the Constitution of India, and their resistance was fundamentally a non-violent one.
While the publisher’s statement is being hailed on social media as a victory against hate speech, Varad Sharma who co-edited A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exile and Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (2015) for them with Siddhartha Gigoo, is disappointed. He finds the criticism against Bloomsbury India “unfair, nasty, and motivated.” He says, “It is sad to hear that Bloomsbury India has decided to withdraw publication of the book on Delhi riots, only implying the level of bullying by free speech defenders. This has happened even before the book is not out in the public domain.”
According to him, publishing platforms must stay neutral so that all shades of opinion get a space, and authors have full freedom to write what they want to without any compromise on their political position. He says, “Those castigating the publishing house are themselves a bigoted lot masquerading as saviours of culture of peace and tolerance. Why should only one set of individuals having a particular ideology (read left-wing coterie) have a say and power to decide what’s what? All those who don’t agree with them are cancelled.”
Anand Ranganathan, author of For Love and Honour (2015) and co-author of The Rat Eater (2019) with Chitra Subramaniam, tweeted, “I am appalled to see @BloomsburyIndia, publisher of two of my books, buckle under threats by fascists and withdraw the book Delhi Riots 2020. I stand in complete solidarity with the authors. This is an assault on freedom of expression and those who cherish this freedom.” He further stated that if the publisher does not retract its decision, he and Sheetal Ranganathan, co-authors of the forthcoming book Forgotten Heroes of Indian Science (2021), will “return the substantial advance” paid to them by Bloomsbury India.
It is interesting to note how the word ‘fascists’ is deployed by people having diverse ideological orientations. Manimugdha Sharma, whose book Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India (2019), was published by Bloomsbury India, says, “They have given me rock-solid support. I was surely taken aback to see all this but they have clarified that they didn’t organize that fascist gig (the book launch). I am glad that better sense has prevailed, and they have decided to pulp the book. There is no question of any moral conflict here.”
According to him, most mainstream publishers “do not have a stated line” but “almost all of them subscribe to progressive ideals.” He is proud of the publisher he has been associated with, especially since they supported “a history book that busts right-wing propaganda about Emperor Akbar, the Mughals, and every other Muslim dynasty or empire.” He says, “It’s possible that sometimes wrong calls will be taken. That’s very human. At least, Bloomsbury has acknowledged its responsibility towards society and pulped the book.”
Does this mean that Delhi Riots 2020: An Untold Story will not be picked up by another publisher to benefit from all the free publicity this book has received? Gurugram-based Garuda Prakashan has raced ahead to make hay while the sun shines. The book is already available for pre-order on their website. Whether these authors have taken legal action against Bloomsbury India, or if other publishers have commissioned books on the Delhi riots, is not clear yet. Instead of reducing the issue to a battle between the right and the left, there needs to be a more robust conversation about where the onus of protecting free speech lies. Is it the state, civil society or the publishing industry?
Author Sandip Roy, whose novel Don’t Let Him Know (2015), was published by Bloomsbury India, says, “A publisher will always have to be accountable for the decisions they take about books they choose to commission and books they choose to cancel. The buck stops with them. Just as they accept the plaudits when a book wins awards, they have to be ready for brickbats when a book attracts controversy.” He knows that a call to boycott the publishing house would affect all authors who have published with them but that is among the least of his concerns.
Glad that the book has been withdrawn, he says, “I have not read the book so I cannot comment on its substance. But I don’t think a freedom of expression argument holds here. That might hold true if one was publishing contrarian or unpopular opinions that fail some ideological litmus test but when one publishes a book that is purportedly about facts you have to be sure you have vetted those facts and can stand by them...No author wants to be put in a position to defend the indefensible because of their publisher. Nor should they be required to do so.”
Roy’s position is also validated by the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech (2019), in which UN Secretary-General António Guterres describes hate speech as “a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace,” which must be confronted because “silence can signal indifference to bigotry and intolerance, even as a situation escalates and the vulnerable become victims.” According to Guterres, addressing hate speech “does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech” but “keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.”
In 2019, PanMacmillan India withdrew Gay Icons of India written by Hoshang Merchant and Akshaya K Rath soon after publication. Gaysi Family, a blog for the South Asian queer community, reports that the book was “filled with serious inaccuracies regarding (scholar-activist) Ruth Vanita, amounting in some cases to defamation.” In 2018, there was a change.org petition asking Penguin Random House India to withdraw Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks written by Nandini Krishnan. The publisher stood by the author despite concerns raised about “the transphobic and unethical nature of the contents of the book” and the “seeming lack of due diligence and editorial oversight.”
The outrage against Bloomsbury India is not limited to a single book but their overall credibility is being questioned. On August 21, historian Audrey Truschke tweeted asking Bloomsbury India if they “want to side with the fascists” on a matter that “isn’t a debate of ideas but a question of lives, and who murdered some Indian citizens in a pogrom.” On August 22, author Shefali Vaidya tweeted that she would “return the advance” paid for her forthcoming book with the publisher because they do not respect freedom of speech. Both are influential voices on social media but their politics are entirely different from each other.
How did the narrative shift from #BoycottBloomsbury to #BoycottWilliamDalrymple? After Delhi Riots 2020: An Untold Story was withdrawn, novelist Aatish Taseer tweeted a thank-you note to Delhi-based Scottish historian William Dalrymple -- Festival Director of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival -- for his “efforts in putting a stop to this shameful bit of state propaganda.” The call to boycott Dalrymple’s books is going viral, led by Shefali Vaidya, Anand Ranganathan, and also filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri who was contracted by Bloomsbury India for the book Who Killed Shastri? As the publishing industry mulls over the optics and financial implications of standing by Dalrymple, only time will tell whether the riot-affected people of Delhi will gain anything from the ‘victories’ on social media.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.