In a highly polarised society where every word and image depicted online, onscreen or on paper goes through the hard filter of “with us-or-them”, withdrawal of the book ‘Delhi Riots 2020: An Untold Story’ — reportedly a right wing view of the riots — by its publisher Bloomsbury India has deepened the fault lines.
Ranjana Sengupta, former editor with Penguin, said “interest” of the public should be paramount. “The line between freedom of expression and social responsibility is a really fine one and often hard to discern. But in such a polarised climate, publishers have to consider what is in the best interests of society at large,” said Sengupta. “Withdrawing the book was the right choice and it must have been a tough call to make. Publishers must have taken the decision after thinking it through,” added Sengupta who in the past has edited books on right wing beliefs and also by left wing academicians.
“I am glad they withdrew the book and it was not quite right to publish it in the first place, at a time when Muslims are being targeted. I am really surprised who commissioned it and why did they go ahead with it,” said Tanya Singh, editor, Yoda Press, an independent publishing house.
The current episode is reminiscent of the 2014 withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘Hindus, an alternative history’ by its publisher Penguin. The publisher had cited moral responsibility to “protect employees against threats and harassment”.
This time around, some authors like Anand Ranganathan and Sanjay Dixit tweeted boycotting Bloomsbury India. Ranganathan said: “In light of the decision by @BloomsburyIndia to withdraw the book “Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story”, I have decided to put on hold my plans to publish…”
Author, diplomat and former Rajya Sabha MP Pavan K Varma said a ban is not a solution. “I am against banning all books except when the content is scurrilous and intended to incite violence. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it or counter it by writing a book of your own. But I am against the closure of the civilizational legacy of dialogue,” said Varma, who has written on culture, mythology and the middle class.
Ensuring freedom of speech without jeopardizing their own safety is a tightrope walk for publishers. As Poulomi Chatterjee, editor-in-chief and publisher Hachette India, put it, “Publishing decisions involve balancing publishing imperatives with commercial aspects. Broad guiding principles exist around freedom of speech and legal compliance, and they can sometimes be in conflict. The fundamental guiding principles remain believing in each book you publish, and allowing diversity of voice and choice. For us it would include not allowing hate messaging and staying in what we’d like to believe is a liberal space.”
It is important to balance literary evaluation with business discretion, said Teesta Guha Thakurta, senior commissioning editor, Pan Macmillan India. “Even if a book comes with solid sales potential but does not match our ethical standards, we would want to turn it down,” said Thakurta.
“We need to be very careful because we as the publishing industry are putting out books that record events that may or may not tarnish the history of India. We need to read, cross-check and be well aware of the consequences of our actions,” said Mita Kapur, founder, Siyahi Literary Agency, and co-host Bhutan Lit Fest. Kapur said that it was a wise decision to withdraw the book.


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