Friday, August 22, 2014

Rukun Advani: Where The Mind is Not Without Fear

A possible future of mass self-censorship by writers and thinkers makes a mockery of protestations of democratic freedom in India

Six years ago the vice chancellor at Delhi University was told he could soon be arrested. Someone in Dera Bassi near Chandigarh had filed a case against him: an essay by the scholar A.K. Ramanujan, in an Oxford University Press book, titled Three Hundred Ramayanas had hurt the religious sentiments of the plaintiff. Ramanujan was showing Hinduism as made up of a variety of traditions. The plaintiff found this offensive because he knew it to be a fact that there was one true Hinduism: the one he had been taught in Dera Bassi. The case was filed by a proxy. The man behind it is believed to have been an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh schoolteacher, Dinanath Batra, known for his interest in a new kind of Mahabharat to dismantle the Nehruvian worldview and replace it with the Savarkarian and Golwalkarian. Central to his effort was a rejection of the empiricist assumptions on which history is based because it offends what Hindutva thinks is Hinduism.

The Delhi vice chancellor was only the first target of a man who had sensed that the judiciary can be used as a stalking horse. The charge of causing harassment can be sidestepped by making the fight look all cleanly legal, even as the individual complained against is harassed into having to employ a lawyer, pay court fees, and defend himself for years on end in places he didn’t even know existed.

The Delhi vice chancellor and the OUP, who jettisoned the Ramanujan essay, were trying to escape trips to court. Their decisions buttressed Batra, whose next target was the academic publisher. The OUP, who had published Ramanujan, had even disowned their superstar author and — until shamed by pressure from their scholarly constituency — declared Ramanujan’s books out of print. It was like the walls of Jericho in the Old Testament, which crashed not because of an assault but by mere trumpet blasts blown by Israelite priests. Batra had hardly hitched up his khaki shorts to find the opposition pulling down its yellowed pants.

Setting aside the work of British Orientalists from William Jones to Vincent Smith, scholarly publishing in English became properly visible in modern South Asia only about fifty years back. Nationalism of the strongly moral sort was a generally fierce impulse from the 1950s to the 1970s, and among some of the Indian branches of British publishers — such as OUP, Longman, and Macmillan — nation-building of a kind came into being via the publication of learned works by Indians. Gradually, with improvements in standards and the efforts of exceptional publishers such as Ravi Dayal, it even became prestigious to publish within the country. This spawned smaller imprints that snapped successfully at the heels of the bigger corporations from which they had broken away. For about twenty-five years — until the arrival of Penguin India gave Indian fiction-writers a distinct presence which overshadowed the university crowd — the phrase, ‘Indian writing in English’, referred mostly to the writings of scholars and scholar-poets such as Ramanujan.

This quiet arena seldom made it to the newspapers. Books appeared and were reviewed; publishers acquisitioned invisibly, earning themselves a little money, some social clout, and a reputation for helping local scholarship. Relations between writers and publishers were friendly.

Since Batra’s assault on Ramanujan, two alien elements have disturbed this serene flow. First, the terrain has become less unfamiliar to the public, sometimes via front-page headlines, ironically because of Batra’s efforts to stop the flow altogether. Second, the spirit of bonhomie between authors and scholars has become strained because of a new wariness between the two. Publishers now instinctively look for potential legal difficulties within every script and assess the author’s possible degree of animosity towards them should problems arise. Authors now instinctively wonder if the publisher will ditch their books the moment there is any hint of legal trouble from the Hindutva cohort.

The most unfortunate instance of this changed atmosphere is the trouble between Megha Kumar and her publisher, Orient Blackswan, with the author denouncing the publisher for altering the normal process of publication by getting lawyers to re-review a finished copy of her book. Academics in sympathy with her predicament have supported her, even as they have acknowledged her publisher’s need to protect its staff and commitment to other authors. OBS have maintained that neither Kumar’s book nor another attacked via the courts by Batra — Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition — has been withdrawn. One of their directors, Nandini Rao, summarizes their peculiar problem: “While we were obviously aware of the Doniger issue, the James Laine case, etc., when we received Batra’s legal notice for From Plassey to Partition, we were stunned that a bestselling title by a universally acknowledged authority should be targeted a decade after its publication.

“The fact that we are going ahead with Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s book demonstrates our commitment to independent scholarship and our refusal to be bullied… However, we are not above the law… we have to seek appropriate academic and legal advice and find ways to put out our books in the market without them facing any hurdles, primarily without a stay being placed on their distribution.

“Both James Laine and the MD of the publishing house faced criminal cases and long legal battles. Despite the author issuing an apology, the Bhandarkar Institute was ransacked... we do not want to stop publication of Megha Kumar’s book. Our interest is in finding a way to publish it without a stay being placed on its distribution and eventual reach.”

But how can such commitment proceed other than along the directions the publisher may soon be asked by a court to follow? With this position Professor Partha Chatterjee says he has some sympathy and several caveats: “... a lot of the hostility between authors and publishers has occurred recently because of a series of cases in which publishers have withdrawn or are asking for review of books that they have already published, after having gone through all their evaluations and editorial checks. When this happens, authors quite rightly feel betrayed.

“To avoid this, it is necessary that publishers do all their evaluations, including assessment by lawyers of the risks that the book might violate the law or even that it might draw unacceptable political attacks, before they actually accept a manuscript for publication and sign a contract with the author.” Publishers will find the OBS logic compelling because the press has carefully distinguished itself from OUP/Ramanujan and Penguin/Doniger. But many authors will agree more with Chatterjee’s logic: the publisher had best assess it all beforehand; once a contract is signed, no more lawyers.

The Megha Kumar problem is also the symptom of a generally dismaying development. A thorough checking of every sentence in every book for possible future Batra-bashing means not just protracted turnaround time but the appearance of fewer scholarly books. Batra may not eventually succeed in court, but the Batra effect has already created conditions of self-censorship, which greatly increase the costs of academic publishing. The phenomenon is temporary and not a decimation of Indian scholarly publishing — the domain is too large even for the RSS to demolish — but it has vitiated the climate for investment in this kind of book.

How do authors and publishers respond to this altered scenario? Nayanjot Lahiri sees Batra in an illustrious lineage of disruptors: “Remember the litigation around D.N. Jha’s Holy Cow — Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions? It was strange because Rajendralal Mitra in the nineteenth century convincingly argued for cow sacrifice and beef eating among the Indo-Aryans, just as P.V. Kane did in the 1940s… the most determined litigants in his case were not Hindus but Jainas. Jha had cited evidence to show meat-eating among them in ancient times. The book was published by Matrix Books and was eventually withdrawn by the publisher... In situations like this, the publishers should support authors — especially if they have deep pockets like OUP and Penguin.” She also raises an issue that bothers most authors and publishers these days: self-censorship. Among authors and publishers the term now means a state of intimidation, proceeding with extreme caution for fear of harassment.

Of this the examples are legion, but here is one relatively unknown. A monograph by the American professor of Hindi Studies, Philip Lutgendorf, entitled The Life of a Text — Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (winner of the A.K. Coomaraswamy Prize 1993), has never secured an Indian co-publisher because of its historical treatment of a religious subject. Multiplied, this situation suggests a possible future of mass self-censorship, with the best books on Indian religious history being published and available in the West but not in India, making a mockery of Indian protestations about its democracy providing freedom of expression to writers and thinkers. The talibanization of Afghanistan and Pakistan looks harsher than the hindutvization of India for the moment, but, as Shelley might say, “If Taliban comes, can Hindutva be far behind?”

Academics generally believe that OUP India and Penguin India, being rich and big, did not have to buckle. Romila Thapar says: “Wealthy publishers like Penguin have money power behind them and there are ways in which money can be used.

“If publishers are afraid of their offices being vandalized and their staff being physically assaulted, then they should make a public announcement in the media of who is attacking them and which book and author and give the text of the attack and the response of the author. These are not surreptitious actions and need public exposure.

“There is a fear of long drawn-out legal cases, but no publisher has gone this route. If the courts were to clear such passages in even one book it would be a major victory. If it does not, then it will be no worse than it is at the present.

“Religious nationalism cannot go on forever. Historically it does have a limited time period — maybe a half century or so. So those that support it are desperate to establish it while they can. They resort to all means — physical violence, legal threats, abuse... Religious nationalists always suffer from lack of confidence: we are going through the process of their testing their strength by making all these attacks and seeing where they succeed.”
OBS’s assurance of wrestling Batra to the ground will be a kind of litmus test of what authors want: a steadfast defence of the author and the book contract.

A historian known for his ability to summarize large swathes of intellectual work is Sumit Sarkar, who says, “A quiet and insidious pressurising of publishers and authors is evidently under way. It has not so far led to formal official bans or even instructions to withdraw publications, as happened the last time the NDA was in power. This time, it takes the form of individual action — legal notice or even a threat of that. The beauty of it is that the government cannot be held openly responsible, even if we know that Batra has been a RSS member almost since its beginning. This reminds me of the method of ‘rumours and messages’ in Elizabethan England which would be carefully circulated and with which Elizabeth managed to manipulate Parliament without open commands or formal censorship laws.”

All this said and done, one vital feature remains to be factored in: the internet. Batra’s war is directed against paper editions, and court directions suppressing books have been limited to such editions. Meanwhile readers are switching to e-editions and pirated downloads, which are virtually impossible to attack or ban. If publishers have seen their sales drop and their margins plummet because of the new technology, the new formats may also be the reason why Batra and the RSS find it futile to target the monograph and switch to altering textbooks, where the internet cannot thwart them.

So, if Tagore were writing today, he would conclude: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/ Where knowledge is free/ Where the world has not been broken up by the internet into fragments/ Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my Facebook Page awake me.”

The author is editor and publisher, Permanent Black

See also:
नाकोहस (National Commission of Hurt Sentiment; a fable for our times)

Stephen Alter - The right of the reader
Taslima moves Supreme Court against FIR over tweet // SC accords protection to Tasleema Nasreen from arrest

Ulema now demand expulsion of Taslima Nasrin - Let's defend her right to live & speak in peace

Prof Irfan Habib's remark on AMU minority character causes stir

Javed Anand - Ms Wadud, we are ashamed

Academic research on Rushdie's literary work sabotaged by Deoband Ulema

VHP disrupts Hyderabad's Kashmir Film Festival

Gita Sahgal - Bangladesh: Blasphemy, Genocide and Violence Against Women

Taslima Nasreen - ‘Religion Is The Biggest Bane For Any Democracy’

Syed Badrul Ahsan calls for Taslima's return - Our writers, our moral parameters

Two persons arrested for Facebook post on Mumbai shutdown after Bal Thackeray's death

Venue for a Speech on Tamas - A Chronicle of an Event That Should Never Have Happened

Call on the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay to encourage the withdrawal of complaints against Indian Rationalist Sanal Edamaruku

LUMS fires Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy

Maryam Namazie: Defend Bangladesh's Bloggers



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