literature reportage Literature

Pulped

Publishers failed to stand up to Dina Nath Batra in ways that matter. What will this mean for the future of debate in India?

By HARTOSH SINGH BAL | 1 December 2014

ON 16 MAY, as the results of the 2014 general election poured in and set Narendra Modi on his way to being declared prime minister, the UK-based political analyst Megha Kumar received a letter from Orient Blackswan, her Indian publisher. A month earlier, Kumar’s first book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, had gone on sale. It was partly the product of her Oxford DPhil thesis, and had been rigorously reviewed before publication. Orient Blackswan’s letter informed her that the book would now be “set aside” for “comprehensive reassessment.”

The withdrawal of Kumar’s book came in the wake of a legal notice sent to the publisher by Dina Nath Batra, the indefatigable 84-year-old founder of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, an educational organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the notice, Batra objected to the contents of another Orient Blackswan title, a work of Indian history by a professor in New Zealand. The publisher’s response was to undertake a “pre-release” review of all its books that might attract similar attention.

Orient Blackswan’s cave-in had much to do with Batra’s past. He had already won a few major victories against publishers, the most notable of which had come in February: after a four-year legal dispute over the American scholar Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, the publisher, Penguin, settled with Batra out of court, withdrew the remaining copies of the book, and pulped them. Soon after, Batra targeted another Doniger book, On Hinduism, which was published in India by Aleph, an imprint of Rupa. By March, Aleph seemed to be heading much the same way as Penguin; it had agreed to have Doniger’s book reviewed by “independent” experts, and to share the results with Batra before reprinting it.

Modi’s election heightened fears that Batra and his organisation would be further emboldened. But now, more than six months later, things have changed dramatically. Aleph has reprinted On Hinduism without alterations, and Batra recently told me that, although he still maintains his strong objections to the book, he will not be taking legal action against it or any other work. Instead, he and his organisation are focusing on curriculum reform.

Batra’s reversal is welcome, even if it does not bode well for the future of education in India. But it would be wrong to assume that he has been shown up for a bully who will back down when challenged. Batra and his samiti are part of a spectrum of organisations, all closely connected to the RSS, that are combating what they see as distortions of Hinduism. The decision not to pursue a case against the Aleph title was not Batra’s alone. Doniger’s books first came to his attention through a US-based group that helps fund his activism, and that group has adopted a similar position since Modi came to power. This could have much to do with a view the current government may be taking—that, at least for the moment, any further controversy over the targeting of books would be counterproductive.

These circumstances may well change in the future. If they do, there’s little in the record of Penguin’s or Aleph’s defence of their respective publications to encourage confidence about the fate of other works. New interviews with several key figures in these cases, who have previously declined to comment, shed a worrying light on how the decisions to abandon or stand by these works were made. Ultimately, the way the battle over Doniger’s books unfolded suggests that the future of intellectual debate and dissent in the country does not rest on secure grounds, but is subject to political exigencies.

DINA NATH BATRA HAS BEEN IN AND OUT of the limelight for more than ten years. Before the Penguin case, he was perhaps best known for moving the Delhi High Court to remove AK Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ from Delhi University’s history syllabus, in 2008. (In a pattern that’s since become familiar, the university acceded to Batra’s wishes of its own accord.) Although he is normally accessible to the media—in the months after Penguin’s decision to pulp The Hindus, he gave at least half a dozen interviews—he was unwilling to meet me. His cell phone was often answered by one or another of his associates, who always promised to get back to me, but never did.

Then, in late October, Batra answered the line himself. Although he was recovering from prostate surgery, he said he would have a longer conversation with me after I met his colleague Madan Lal Sharma. “He will give you all the necessary documents and provide you all the necessary details about the case,” Batra said.

I met Sharma at the west Delhi office of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. The office is on the second floor of the Naraina Vihar Saraswati Bal Mandir school, one of a chain of schools run by Vidya Bharti, the educational wing of the RSS. (Before he started the samiti, Batra, a long-time RSS pracharak, was Vidya Bharti’s vice president, and he is still listed as one of its office bearers.) Sharma was seated in a small cubicle in a room partitioned like a shabby corporate office. Bhagat Singh (with his jaunty fedora and waxed moustache) and Bharat Mata (one hand holding a saffron flag, the other raised in benediction, with the elbow leaning on a lion) looked down from posters on the walls.

As we sat and talked, Sharma helpfully emailed me the court settlement with Penguin and handed me a copy of a booklet titled Safalta ki Kahani (The Story of Success), published by the samiti’s media division. The pamphlet compiles details from the case, as well as media articles on the issue. In the preface, written in Hindi, Batra describes how “a resident of America, Vasant Kumar Toriyal informed me that an assistant professor at Chicago University, Wendy Doniger, has written a controversial book titled The Hindus, An Alternative History which has been published by the internationally renowned publisher Penguin.”

The errors in this opening statement seem illustrative of the samiti’s approach to textual criticism (large claims, little substance). For one, Doniger is no assistant professor; she is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago. And the person who alerted Batra to the book is actually Basant Tariyal, a former CEO of Ekal Vidyalaya Global, an educational foundation that has opened schools in India’s tribal regions.

Tariyal, who now sits on Ekal’s board of advisors, is based in Atlanta. His role was not confined to informing Batra about Doniger’s work—he was also involved in directing and funding it. On the last two pages of the samiti’s booklet is a section titled “Best Wishes.” Under the heading “Rajiv Malhotra” is a letter from Atlanta-based Dhiru Shah, who, along with Tariyal, runs the India Awareness Foundation, which aims to spread knowledge about India’s contributions to the world. The letter states:

Dear All,

While we don’t want to boast about this court victory against Wendy Doniger we like to place on record that the action taken against Wendy’s book by the court has been the result of the vigorous proactive approach and financial contributions given to Mr Batra to fight by the Atlanta based group of activists which includes Subhash Razdan, Ram Sidhaye, Basant Tariyal and Dhiru Shah. We are happy that after so many months of follow up, we all Hindus, have got some success against this powerful anti-Hindu person. Please note that the same group (seven individuals) had with Emory where we at least succeeded in forcing Emory to withdraw the book from their library and deny Courtright from teaching Hinduism. This is our small vontribution [sic] to the cause of defending Hindu Dharma. Of course, there is no comparison with Rajiv’s monumental research work (all his books) in taking on the battle against the anti-Hindu forces.

Both the samiti and the Ekal foundation deny any direct link with the RSS. But although the connections are complicated, they’re very real. I have been following the foundation’s work in Madhya Pradesh since 2003. It is run by the Friends of Tribal Society, or the Vanbandhu Parishad. In the early years of its spread in the state, the parishad’s press conferences were organised by the Vishwa Samvad Kendra, the RSS’s communications wing. The invites would clearly state that the parishad was affiliated with Sewa Bharti, a major arm of the RSS. The Ekal foundation has since managed to organise itself in a way that no longer suggests a direct link with the RSS. The last president of the foundation was Subhash Chandra of the Essel Group, which owns the Zee television network. But many of the foundation’s office bearers have RSS backgrounds. Like Batra, Atul Kothari has been associated with the Vidya Bharti; he is now the director of the Ekal foundation’s ethics and education committee. What’s more, he is Batra’s deputy in the samiti. Thus, Tariyal has a direct link to Batra’s organisation.

Once I confirmed that Tariyal was a senior member of the Ekal foundation, it was easy to obtain his email address. I wrote to him to corroborate the letter that appeared in the booklet. I specifically asked him how the decision to pursue the case had been taken, and how the legal battle had been funded. He replied:

Since Batra had been in the forefront of fighting the issues of falsification of history by the leftist oriented scholars in India, especially as it deals with the school curricula in India, and he has many court victories to his credit, he was the natural choice to take up this issue. This was the recommendation of many of my knowledgeable friends.

Tariyal continued, “In the first meeting he arranged, I was impressed by his preparation, management skills, and his leadership. My suggestion was to work in India and see what could be done under Indian laws to stop the circulation of the Book. In the US we already had a letter writing campaign against her receiving the NYCC book club award, as well as a demonstration in front of the NYCC Book Club. The rest you know.” As for the financial contribution, he said it was “quite modest, the total coming to no more than Rs. five lacs.” (Whatever the amount, this is interesting in light of the recent attention this government has paid to the foreign funding of NGOs.)

Clearly, Batra and his RSS-affiliated samiti had not developed an aversion to Doniger’s scholarship on their own. They had been funded to carry forward a war over the representation of Hinduism that is already underway in the United States, where it is far more difficult to stifle books in the name of hurt sensibilities.

That war dates back to a 2002 article by Rajiv Malhotra, whose name was printed above Dhiru Shah’s letter. On his website, Malhotra describes himself as an “Indian–American researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science.” The article, ‘Wendy’s child syndrome,’ was published on the website Sulekha.com. It’s a critique of the dominant modes of scholarship on Hinduism in US academia. As the title suggests, Malhotra sees Doniger and her students as the most prominent perpetrators of this scholarship, which, according to him, caricatures Hinduism.

In the article, Malhotra decries the frequent and rather uncritical use of psychoanalytical literary analysis. His primary example is an undergraduate textbook first published by Oxford University Press, in 1985, and authored by Paul Courtright, a professor of religion and Asian studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Malhotra quotes at length a passage on the god Ganesha:

from a psychoanalytic perspective, there is meaning in the selection of the elephant head. Its trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Siva’s linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes. … So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus—ascetic and benign—whereas Siva is “hard,” erotic, and destructive.

It’s not difficult to sympathise with Malhotra’s indignation over what is essentially pop psychology—and if matters had ended with the article, or the birth of an alternative discourse, there would have been little reason to complain. But, as Shah noted in his letter, the activists in Atlanta went after Courtright. Within a year of ‘Wendy’s child syndrome’ being published, petitions were drafted against his book and indignant protests were organised. Although there was little chance of getting the text withdrawn in the United States, the publisher Motilal Banarsidass, which had reprinted the book in India in 2001, withdrew it from circulation.

Many of the works named by Malhotra, in ‘Wendy’s child syndrome’ and in other articles, have been similarly targeted. As with Courtright’s textbook, battles fought in the United States were used to ensure that no one in India could access the other impugned works. The legal attack on Doniger’s books, which involved two criminal FIRs and a civil suit, was only a culmination of such efforts.

In a recent interview, Malhotra was asked whether he was part of the litigation against Doniger. He replied, “I deliberately decided that this should run its course through the legal system. I do not want any part of it. I’m available as a scholar. My criticisms of the writings are very publicly available. I’ve always said anybody can quote them freely, but I don’t want to be drawn into a legal matter myself.” When I asked Sharma why the letter from Shah had been printed under the heading Rajiv Malhotra, he told me, “woh ek hi toli ke hain”—they are part of the same group. In other words, as far as Batra and his samiti are concerned, Malhotra is part of the organisation that instigated and funded the legal case against Doniger.

WHATEVER THE SOURCE OF FUNDS, whatever the instigation, Batra was only exercising a recourse available to him under law. Balbir Punj, a vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a member the Rajya Sabha, put the matter well. Writing in the Indian Express after the withdrawal of The Hindus, he argued against those wishing to blame the fate of the book on Batra:

The fact is that nobody, not even the so-called Hindu Right, asked for any ban. The simple fact is that the publishers bowed out in response to a complaint filed by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti against the book … The publishers had the option of contesting the claim or appealing to a higher court. They could have countered the accusation in the complaint with their version of the facts. As the complaint was registered in a court under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, the law itself could have been challenged as violating freedom of speech provisions in the Constitution.

Penguin’s sudden capitulation remains the biggest mystery in this case. After fighting Batra from 2010 to 2014, why did the publisher suddenly agree to withdraw the book and settle the matter? “We stand by our original decision to publish The Hindus, just as we stand by the decision to publish other books that we know may cause offence to some segments of our readership,” a press release issued by Penguin after the settlement stated. It continues, “We believe, however, that the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.”

Section 295A criminalises “maliciously insulting the religion or the religious beliefs of any class,” and makes doing so a non-bailable offence punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. Although this statute did not apply to the civil suit against Penguin, which was brought in 2011, the first FIR was filed under the section, in 2010.

That FIR was quashed after Penguin responded to the allegations. But the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti then filed another FIR, in November 2013, accusing Penguin of sedition, a non-bailable offence that can attract a life sentence. According to Dahlia Sen Oberoi, the lawyer who represented Penguin in the matter, the publisher “aggressively defended” the book for four years. “It was only after the second criminal complaint was filed that the decision was taken not to go further,” she told me at her office, in Delhi’s Chittranjan Park. “I stand by my decision to recommend a settlement. The decision was certainly not taken only because of the civil suit. It is just not possible to fight an invisible threat. There is no limit to the number of such criminal cases that can be filed. The book is still available online. As a company they fought so much, but after a point of time it becomes a fruitless endeavour.”

The 2013 case concerned a map showing India during the period between 600 CE to 1600 CE, which was printed in The Hindus. Batra and his group argued that it did not depict Kashmir, and was therefore a threat to national unity. But the map in question does not include any political boundaries at all—and it is difficult to see how a map of pre-modern India, whatever errors it may contain, could challenge modern India’s national unity, or be considered an act of sedition. While the case may have somewhat increased the pressure on Penguin, its frivolousness makes it difficult to imagine that this was the sole reason for the settlement. A more likely possibility was suggested by many people in the publishing industry: four months before the sedition FIR was filed, there had been a worldwide merger of Penguin and Random House.

When I told Sen Oberoi that I understood commercial considerations played a part in the publisher’s decision to settle the civil suit, she said she was not aware if that was the case, though she saw no problem if it was. “It is a business after all, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the deal comes without encumbrances,” she said. She argued that the timelines indicated that this may not have been the reason, and that it was definitely not the basis of her legal advice.

When I ran this argument by Wendy Doniger over email, her response was emphatic:

My understanding is that there is a direct connection between the merger and the decision to drop the lawsuit. This was one reason why I said I did not blame Penguin INDIA; I never said I didn’t blame Penguin INTERNATIONAL or the Penguin Group etc. I do blame them for a lot of this. Penguin India, on the other hand, defended the book for 4 years and was, I am confident, going to go on defending it. I believe that, after the merger, Penguin Random House (as it had then become) put other people in charge of the book, who made the decision to drop the lawsuit.

As for the question of the law in India, she wrote:

I do blame the law, because I think it is dangerously vague, which puts its interpretation by the courts at the mercy of political pressure. But in fact, as you well know, smaller publishers, or at least one smaller publisher, namely Aleph, HAS stood up to Batra and, through him, to 295A. In a way, it was the enormous size of Penguin—after the merger, in particular—that made it nervous about the lawsuit; they had too much to lose. The smaller house, Aleph, was willing to take the gamble. I have great hope and faith in the small publishers in India.

REPRODUCED IN the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti booklet on the Penguin case is a letter from Basant Tariyal:

Dear all i met Batra ji on the 7th, AND HAD A LONG Discussion WITH HIM. We had dinner at khaitan ji,s place. He gave the good news and I asked him to email to others. He has two more initiatives coming. One is to file another suit against Wendy’a new BBO Hinduism. Another is for a research Foundation. He needs our whole hearted support. We should disseminate this widely and collect funds to support him. I had a long meeting with Shri Soni number him, Chirrup bhai I will discuss with you on my return to US. Sorry for the sloppy writing, I an using someone’s I Pad.

In all likelihood, Khaitan and Soni are associates of Batra’s from Vidya Bharti, where Suresh Soni is the margdarshak, the guide or chief. Until October, Soni was also the pointsman between Modi’s government and the RSS. Shortly after Tariyal’s meeting with Batra, which seems to have taken place this February, an email objecting to parts of Doniger’s On Hinduism was sent to Aleph, on 3 March. A letter dated 6 March followed.

Aleph responded by claiming the book was out of print, “probably due to various statements made in public as well as media coverage of your objections to the book published by Penguin. Upon receiving your objections, we sent these to four scholars independently for review as this is common practice in such cases … The book which is out of stock with us shall not be reissued until the concerns are addressed for an acceptable resolution of the matter.”

Batra told me over the phone—I made several subsequent trips to his office, but for some reason he refused to meet me in person, fobbing me off even when we were both present there for hours at a time—that the letter meant Aleph “had given a written assurance that they would reprint the book only after asking us. Printing the book now is a violation of a commitment given to us.”

Aleph’s stance created considerable consternation. Internally, it was opposed by Ravi Singh, the deputy to the publisher, David Davidar. Singh, who had been the one directly handling the book, resigned in the wake of the company’s decision. I spoke to him several times while reporting this story, and we communicated by email. “The primary reason I quit Aleph was the manner in which the owners and directors of Aleph reacted to Batra’s letter asking them to withdraw the book or face legal action,” Singh wrote to me in October. He continued:

When they decided to stop printing the book, upon receiving a simple letter, Aleph effectively withdrew it. They also gave Batra a written commitment (also released to the media) that the book would only be reprinted after a panel of independent experts had examined his list of objections and the matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, including Batra’s. In effect, they privileged Batra and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti over the author, distanced themselves from a hugely acclaimed book they had published, and accepted that it could remain in print only with Batra’s permission.

I did not support this course of action. I was clear that there were no grounds to withdraw the book, and that we should turn to the courts, as Batra himself wished to do.

When I asked the directors of Aleph for an assurance that the book would not be withdrawn altogether and that it would be put back into print at the earliest, I was told that they would give no such assurance. I was told: ‘If withdrawing the book is the best option under the circumstances, we may do that.’ I was also told that I could not say to the media or anyone else that Aleph would not withdraw the book, and expect to continue as an employee of the company. This was a fair position, I thought, and I put in my papers.

I met Davidar at the Aleph office, in Delhi’s Green Park. He said he would not comment on a statement made by a former employee, but he told me that Aleph’s “stance was clear. It was our duty to abide by the law of the land, our duty to the book and the author and at the same time to keep the book in print. We never moved away from the stance. The book was never out of print, stocks may have dipped low at one point.”

He added, “During the time, we had no shortage of well-wishers from either side of the divide giving us advice. When we received the letter from Batra, the Penguin settlement had just taken place and all around us other publishers were capitulating. We wanted to calmly think through our stance and not play it out in the media. Rajan”—RK Mehra, head of Aleph’s parent company, Rupa—“then took it upon himself to directly talk to Batra.”

According to Singh, this meant that the author was not in the loop. “There was a near complete lack of transparency about Aleph’s negotiations with Batra and the SBAS,” he wrote to me. “Neither the author nor her publisher were consulted about things—they were merely informed about decisions after these had been taken and implemented.” (Full disclosure: I am also under contract with Aleph, a fact Singh was aware of when we spoke.)

Doniger confirmed some of this. “David did indeed tell me what he was doing all along, but only in rather general terms; for instance, he did tell me that he would send the book to three ‘experts’ but did not tell me (let alone ask me) who they were or should be,” she said in an email. “And sometimes he told me what was happening only after Ravi had found out and insisted that I be told. But David is telling the truth when he says I was kept abreast of every development; it is just the question of when I was kept abreast.”

According to Singh, the four experts “were not scholars of ancient Indian history, or of Hinduism or of comparative religion. Two of them were not even historians.” He continued:

When the reports came in, they were shared with Batra and not with Wendy. She was sent the reports some days later, after I learnt of their existence from a journalist who had interviewed Batra and who then asked me if I had seen the reports, and I went to my bosses at Aleph for an explanation. This was when Wendy and I saw the reports. And we found them to be not assessments of Batra’s objections to the book, as everyone had been promised they would be, but short, loaded opinions about the book and the author in general.

Batra had Madan Lal Sharma email me these expert reports. As Singh pointed out, they do not deal in specifics, but are indeed short and loaded opinions that would do no harm to Batra’s cause if the matter ever did go to court.

“I didn’t think the people who made the reports had a particularly sound or broad or subtle understanding of the scholarship on Indian history,” Doniger told me. “I did not respect their judgment, and I disagreed with most of their opinions. But then it seems to me that Batra’s entire case is indefensible, and the very idea that people should be asked to judge what might or might not be offensive in a book is equally indefensible. As to whether the reports would be damaging to the case, that would depend upon the attitude of the courts, about which I am absolutely unqualified to judge.”

This is a test now ruled out by Batra. “We still have strong objections but we won’t do anything. We will not pursue cases against individual books but would rather focus on larger issues related to the curriculum,” he said. “While we will continue to seek legal opinion on the Aleph matter, such issues are not on our focus now.”

I asked Tariyal over email if the Atlanta group was interested in continuing the battle through some other representative in India. He replied:

We have already succeeded in several ways. Wendi Doniger is now exposed to at least a large segment of the Indian society here and World wide. This awareness has resulted in many students in US protesting her lectures, and it has created a debate here as well as in India. The subject of the west trying to impose its norms on the rest of the World and the leaders of the west especially the religious ones trying to break up India has been extremely well discussed by Rajiv Malhotra in his seminal books, “Breaking India,” “Being Different,” and “Indra’s net.” As a result at least I have no plans to ask someone else to wage a new battle.

For those who witnessed Batra’s persistence in the earlier case, the climb-down seems inexplicable. The Penguin lawyer, Dahlia Sen Oberoi, said that in her meetings with him she found that he was not amenable to discussion or persuasion; his mind was very much made up on the matter. Over the four years he pursued the Penguin case, he attended every court hearing, and replied to every letter sent to him. But he has not responded to the latest communication, which was sent to him in April, or to the three expert reports sent to him by Rupa. What has led to his recent change of mind?

Singh told me, “When I quit Aleph, private negotiations were still continuing with Batra. What happened after I resigned I do not know. I do know that a couple of authors put pressure on Aleph, threatening to withdraw their own books. On Hinduism was quietly reprinted a month or so after I quit. Presumably Aleph had Batra’s consent by then. I’m happy the book is back in print. I only wish the process that led to this happy event had been less equivocal and troubling.”

None of those involved in the negotiations are willing to speak on the record about it. But RK Mehra, the Rupa chief, who has a formidable network of connections in the BJP and the wider family of RSS-affiliated organisations, interacted directly with Batra. Even while the controversy was underway, Rupa published an English translation of Narendra Modi’s poems. More recently, Rupa’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, edited by Kapil Kapoor, a former pro-vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, was released by the president of India. Kapoor is part of a non-governmental panel on curriculum reform headed by Batra. The panel was ostensibly set up by Batra’s samiti, but the involvement of men such as Kapoor and JS Rajput (who headed the National Council of Educational Research and Training during the Vajpayee regime) suggests that the RSS-backed panel will have a considerable say in any changes this government may make to the national curriculum.

All Mehra would say on record is that “the book is in print. We have fulfilled our job as publishers. But if anyone wants to go to the judiciary to challenge the book, how can I stop them?” When I asked Batra, he denied that he had been asked not to pursue the case, but he refused to give me any other explanation for his change of approach.

FOR THE TIME BEING, it seems that no one will go to the judiciary to challenge On Hinduism. Perhaps paradoxically, this is unfortunate for defenders of free speech in India, because it would have tested Aleph’s resolve—and, through doing so, the law. Eventually, this is a battle that must be fought in court. While many publishers have raised problems with India’s statutes, the fact remains that they have done nothing to change them—despite making all the right noises.

Shortly after the settlement between Batra and Penguin, Gaurav Shrinagesh, the CEO of Penguin Random House India, called a meeting of publishers in Delhi. The conclave was kept off the record, and Batra was only briefly discussed (Mehra told Penguin that it should have engaged with Batra, instead of settling). Instead, it was decided to collectively challenge problematic sections of the penal code, such as 295A, but no action has been taken since. Until that happens, it seems Penguin, which shifted much of the responsibility for its actions onto the provisions of Indian law, will have no counterargument to offer any group that chooses to attack one of its books by claiming hurt sensibilities.

The failure to challenge Batra in court also raises the larger question of a publishing house’s responsibility to the books and authors it chooses to publish. Thomas Abraham, the managing director of Hachette India, told me that the group’s general position “is that yes we will support a book that we have had vetted, because that legal scrutiny is believed to be vigorous.

“There are two aspects here,” he explained in an email. “Fundamentally we have to rely on the protection offered by law, and believe we cannot be held hostage to the lunatic fringe filing cases for the sake of it. So yes in the first instance we will defend a book that has been legally cleared. But there are two circumstances where we may have to take a decision based on the specifics of the case—extra legal measures faced, particularly danger to staff or vendors, and final financial implications.”

He elaborated on the financial considerations:

If the book has been vetted, then it will be defended, even to the point of it becoming a loss making venture. That in itself is not the problem. But there is a threshold—a breaking point—up to which we or any publishing house can go. The book becoming loss making is not the issue, the House becoming loss making is. Remember, unlike the west where libel is the only thing to contend with in a legal scrutiny, here we have sedition, causing religious unrest, obscenity etc—all criminal action cases that insurance does not cover.

The conclusion that Penguin in India has not subscribed to similar standards seems inescapable; it was surely in no danger of collapsing as a publishing house thanks to Batra.

Rupa has proved to be much smarter than Penguin—a fact reflected in Doniger’s email to me. “I am satisfied with the fate of my book On Hinduism: it is freely available in India, unchanged, which is what I most wanted to see,” she wrote. “But I am sorry that people, Batra as well as some journalists, have continued to say that it is not available, as I would like more people—publishers, writers, readers—to know that it is in fact possible to stand up to Batra and publish books that he doesn’t like.” It is also the case that the kind of access Mehra enjoys in this government is not available to most publishers in India. This sort of jugaad—and that is essentially what it is—cannot be a substitute for institutional safeguards that protect freedom of expression.

It’s at best unlikely that such safeguards will be handed over by any Indian government. For the moment, it seems the RSS’s affiliates, extending from here to the United States, have been called off from attacking individual books—but that will probably change in the long term. Moreover, the RSS is not alone in assaulting the freedom of expression. The Congress—or, for that matter, most political and social groups—are as eager to invoke book bans as Hindutva chauvinists. Like Batra, the Congress resorted to legal notices to stop publication of the Spanish author Javier Moro’s The Red Sari, a quasi-fictional biography of Sonia Gandhi. And, earlier this year, Bloomsbury India apologised and withdrew The Descent of Air India after the UPA minister for civil aviation Praful Patel filed a defamation case.

Perhaps what is needed is a Batra who is free to act on his convictions, and a publishing house willing to stand by its commitment to a book. Doniger, for one, understands the importance of such a contest. “What would the courts say about this sort of objection to a book?” she wrote. This question, she said, is “the crux of the uncertainty that has plagued publishers in India—not just mine, but a number of other publishers, too, who have withdrawn or failed to publish books that they feared might stir up similar objections.”

She continued, “I would love to see that tested in the courts. If the court ruled in favor of freedom of speech, that would be a great victory. If it ruled against it, that judgment might inspire people to change the laws under which these cases have been brought.”

 

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly described Praful Patel as “the Congress aviation minister.” Patel is a member of the Nationalist Congress Party, not the Indian National Congress. He served as aviation minister under the United Progressive Alliance government. The Caravan regrets the error.

ON 16 MAY, as the results of the 2014 general election poured in and set Narendra Modi on his way to being declared prime minister, the UK-based political analyst Megha Kumar received a letter from Orient Blackswan, her Indian publisher. A month earlier, Kumar’s first book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, had gone on sale. It was partly the product of her Oxford DPhil thesis, and had been rigorously reviewed before publication. Orient Blackswan’s letter informed her that the book would now be “set aside” for “comprehensive reassessment.”

The withdrawal of Kumar’s book came in the wake of a legal notice sent to the publisher by Dina Nath Batra, the indefatigable 84-year-old founder of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, an educational organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the notice, Batra objected to the contents of another Orient Blackswan title, a work of Indian history by a professor in New Zealand. The publisher’s response was to undertake a “pre-release” review of all its books that might attract similar attention.

Orient Blackswan’s cave-in had much to do with Batra’s past. He had already won a few major victories against publishers, the most notable of which had come in February: after a four-year legal dispute over the American scholar Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, the publisher, Penguin, settled with Batra out of court, withdrew the remaining copies of the book, and pulped them. Soon after, Batra targeted another Doniger book, On Hinduism, which was published in India by Aleph, an imprint of Rupa. By March, Aleph seemed to be heading much the same way as Penguin; it had agreed to have Doniger’s book reviewed by “independent” experts, and to share the results with Batra before reprinting it.

Modi’s election heightened fears that Batra and his organisation would be further emboldened. But now, more than six months later, things have changed dramatically. Aleph has reprinted On Hinduism without alterations, and Batra recently told me that, although he still maintains his strong objections to the book, he will not be taking legal action against it or any other work. Instead, he and his organisation are focusing on curriculum reform.

Batra’s reversal is welcome, even if it does not bode well for the future of education in India. But it would be wrong to assume that he has been shown up for a bully who will back down when challenged. Batra and his samiti are part of a spectrum of organisations, all closely connected to the RSS, that are combating what they see as distortions of Hinduism. The decision not to pursue a case against the Aleph title was not Batra’s alone. Doniger’s books first came to his attention through a US-based group that helps fund his activism, and that group has adopted a similar position since Modi came to power. This could have much to do with a view the current government may be taking—that, at least for the moment, any further controversy over the targeting of books would be counterproductive.

These circumstances may well change in the future. If they do, there’s little in the record of Penguin’s or Aleph’s defence of their respective publications to encourage confidence about the fate of other works. New interviews with several key figures in these cases, who have previously declined to comment, shed a worrying light on how the decisions to abandon or stand by these works were made. Ultimately, the way the battle over Doniger’s books unfolded suggests that the future of intellectual debate and dissent in the country does not rest on secure grounds, but is subject to political exigencies.

DINA NATH BATRA HAS BEEN IN AND OUT of the limelight for more than ten years. Before the Penguin case, he was perhaps best known for moving the Delhi High Court to remove AK Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ from Delhi University’s history syllabus, in 2008. (In a pattern that’s since become familiar, the university acceded to Batra’s wishes of its own accord.) Although he is normally accessible to the media—in the months after Penguin’s decision to pulp The Hindus, he gave at least half a dozen interviews—he was unwilling to meet me. His cell phone was often answered by one or another of his associates, who always promised to get back to me, but never did.

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Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.

READER'S COMMENTS

52 thoughts on “Pulped”

There is a very simple rationale behind the behavior of Indian publishers; they exercise censorship when it comes to books that could offend minorities, such as The Satanic Verses or Lajja or The Last Temptation of Christ or Vanity Incarnate. They didn’t think that Hindus could get organized to protest (note that this was relatively peaceful unlike the reactions to the aforementioned books), that too legally, and were caught in the hypocrisy of their own making. The last mentioned book, Vanity Incarnate, was banned because it was offensive to Hartosh Singh Bal’s own Sikh community. But you can bet your life that he will never defend the right to free speech for its author, Harinder Singh, or even spend a minute to ferret out the secular-religious nexus that successfully banned this book in India. It is unremitting hypocrisy such as this; stark, shameless and dripping with manufactured sanctimony, that permeates Hartosh Singh Bal’s copious writings and utterances on “secular” matters as they pertain to Hindus.

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