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Navayana, an English language publisher in the country with a focus on Dalit writing, has cancelled its contract with Tamil writer Joe D’Cruz for his public admiration of Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidate. Navayana was to publish the English translation of D’Cruz’s 2005 novel, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World), later this year, but both publisher S. Anand and translator V. Geetha have criticized the Sahitya Akademi winner’s glowing endorsement of Modi and distanced themselves from his book.

“It is both appalling and disturbing that D’Cruz, who captured the rich and unique history of the seafaring community of Tamil Nadu in an epic tale spanning three generations, should call a fascist like Modi a ‘dynamic visionary’," Anand said in a statement on the Navayana website. “There cannot be a place for such an author in a political publishing house like Navayana … we are glad we came to know Joe’s stand before the novel was published."

Geetha, too, clarified her position in the note. “I was terribly distressed when I read Joe D’Cruz’s statement of support for Modi. He is entitled to his political opinion, but I don’t want to be associated with anyone or anything linked to Modi," said the feminist writer and translator. “Modi in my opinion is not only a political disaster, but downright evil. We can’t forget Gujarat 2002—no one must be allowed to, either." While professing her admiration for the novel, she adds that she is sorry that the author “has decided to trade his considerable gifts as a novelist for a politics that is fascist and dangerous."

Navayana is within its rights to refuse to go ahead with the project. Most publishing contracts have the right to rescind a title if it falls short of an acceptable editorial standard. Navayana, in particular, is a publishing house driven by a specific political agenda—of fighting social injustice and prejudice perpetrated on the basis of caste. Since it has chosen to define its editorial vision along a certain line from the start, it is only to be expected that it will try to uphold it consistently.

However, such a decision makes it culpable to the charge of self-censorship, as Penguin had to face as well when it recently decided to withdraw all existing copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from the market and pulp them. To be clear, Penguin’s decision to wash its hands off Doniger was taken under duress, when it gave in to the demands of a group of six who were offended by the scholar’s interpretation of Hinduism. Navayana, on the other hand, decided its course of action on its own, not in deference to the wishes of others.

Navayana’s publishing history, it has been pointed out, includes the works of the late Namdeo Dhasal, the acclaimed Marathi Dalit poet, who had been a supporter of the Shiv Sena, an outfit known for its ultra-conservative line. Dhasal’s views, however, were not of unqualified admiration, unlike D’Cruz’s praise for Modi, though such subtle distinctions usually tend to get overlooked in the thick of a controversy (Namdeo Dhasal: A poet of the underbelly).

The controversy revives a debate that has been around since the beginning of literary activity. Can the political and the literary be kept apart? Does ideology taint the genius of a writer? Can we, as readers, respond to a work of literature without being influenced by the beliefs and biographical details of its creator?

V.S. Naipaul has a reputation for being rude and perpetuating the worst clichés about India. Does that make him a lesser writer? Woody Allen’s reputation as a husband and father is not exactly salutary. Should we, then, boycott his films? Both Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir went on to benefit from racial laws instituted during the Vichy years at the height of World War II. While they were heavily criticized by contemporaries like Albert Camus, can their contributions to philosophy and literature be ignored?

It is not unreasonable that reactions to writers and their legacy should be made on a case-by-case basis. One of the first things that Naipaul did, as Girish Karnad pointed out in his denunciation of the Nobel Laureate in 2012, was to visit the BJP office and say that he was happy to be “politically appropriated" (Excerpts: Girish Karnad takes on V.S. Naipaul).

In his tirades against Islam, Naipaul also made no qualms about stating his politics loud and clear, making it increasingly difficult to read his work for its intrinsic content in isolation from the beliefs of the man who had written it. Criticizing the committees that decided to bestow an award on Naipaul for his life’s work, Karnad had asked for an explanation from them on where exactly they stood with regard to Naipaul’s remarks.

“Do they mean to valorize Naipaul’s stand that Indian Muslims are raiders and marauders? Are they supporting his continued argument that Muslim buildings in India are monuments to rape and loot?" Karnad asked. “Or are they by their silence suggesting that these views do not matter?"

Navayana, too, has decided not to publish a writer who thinks Modi is a “dynamic visionary", who believes that the chief minister of Gujarat—under whose administration hundreds of Muslims were tortured, raped, maimed and killed in 2002; whose track record in human rights is abysmal— is going to transform India with his magic touch. He believes that a man of humble origins like Modi will fight for the uplift of the poorest sections of society. By choosing to not publish a book by a writer whose views are against its editorial values, Navayana has merely exercised its freedom of choice.

A question also begs to be asked. Would those who are now invoking higher principles—of freedom of speech and expression—have spared Navayana had it gone ahead and published D’Cruz instead of taking a stand now and setting what may be seen as a bad precedent?

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