Home / Opinion / BETWEEN THE LINES: Shades of Irony

The irony around Penguin Books India’s (PBI) decision to withdraw and pulp existing copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History in the Indian market gets bleaker. A statement released by the members of the PEN All-India Centre in Mumbai and the PEN Delhi Centre condemns PBI’s out-of-court settlement with the litigants “instead of challenging an adverse judgment"—an action, as they rightly point out, that “narrows India’s intellectual discourse and significantly undermines freedom of expression". The statement goes on to mention a roll-call of books to have been affected by censorship recently: Jitender Bhargava’s The Descent of Air India, published by Bloomsbury India was withdrawn from circulation after a case was filed by former aviation minister Praful Patel; Sahara Group has filed a defamation suit against Tamal Bandyopadhyay, a Mint journalist and author of Sahara: The Untold Story, and secured a stay on the book’s publication by Jaico Publishing House.

As it happens, Chiki Sarkar, publisher of PBI, is a member of the PEN Delhi Centre.

Sarkar’s peculiar predicament says as much about the workings of corporate publishing as about the nature of Indian democracy. In a guest post on Nilanjana S. Roy’s blog (also a member of PEN Delhi Centre) in 2012, Sarkar had outlined her thoughts on the judicial challenges, especially those that are posed by injunctions, Indian publishing faces. Her statements, in the light of the events of the past two days, heighten the dilemma that editors and publishers of even the most liberal dispensation have to live with in India.

Being the largest trade publisher in the country, PBI has got into a number of legal entanglements in its history of existence (close to 30 years now). Curiously, apart from a clear win in the Khushwant Singh vs Maneka Gandhi case, the majority of its battles have ended in concessions or defeat, the most notorious perhaps being the ban on the import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. More recently, in 2011, entrepreneur Arindam Chaudhuri took out an injunction against Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned because he was offended by Deb’s portrayal of him in the book. The case resulted in PBI removing the offending chapter from the Indian edition. In the same year, after an excerpt from journalist Vaasanthi’s biography of J. Jayalalithaa, commissioned by PBI, was published in Outlook magazine, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu had a stay order issued against it. The book is yet to see the light of day.

Examples of such intimidation and manipulation abound, though not all are known to the public. Last year Random House India (now a part of the Penguin Random House conglomerate) published, rather bravely in a country that criminalizes homosexuality, Australian writer Benjamin Law’s travel-memoir Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East. The Indian edition had the name of a well-known Indian “godman", who claims to have the power to “cure" homosexuality, carefully excised, presumably to avoid libel.

In her defence, Sarkar argued that a combination of material and circumstantial forces usually compel publishers to cave in. Yet, fighting a case may be an expensive proposition but giving in to bigots can prove to be costly in a different way. By choosing to submit to the demands of a fanatical few, the country’s biggest publishing enterprise gained relief from a lawsuit that was bleeding them money, but lost the goodwill and respect it would have got had it decided to stick by the values and principles of a liberal democracy.

India remains a country unreasonably sensitive to criticism: our political, religious and cultural leaders are quick to take umbrage. Our judiciary, especially the lower courts, is not the best arbiter of justice, especially when it comes to freedom of expression. While visiting Delhi earlier last month, John Ralston Saul, president of PEN International, had spoken at length about the challenges of free speech in India. “The fundamental thing is that there’s no example of censorship working as a way of strengthening a society," he had said. It is unfortunate that the country’s most powerful publisher seems to believe otherwise.

This fortnightly column talks about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future. The author is a former employee of PBI.

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