Publishing giant Bloomsbury kicked off a debate around freedom of expression this past week, engaging almost everybody on social media. The debate consisted of contrasting opinions, the aim of which mostly revolved around one group trying to bury the other with the accusation of curtailing its freedom of expression, while the other group defended its own freedom of registering protest.
At the centre of the heated debate lay the book Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, authored by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra.
The book attracted widespread criticism when a poster announcing its launch surfaced on social media on August 22, featuring BJP leader Kapil Mishra as an invited guest at an online event. People started tagging Bloomsbury on social media in an effort to make it aware that one of its ‘guests of honour’ is the very man who gave a provocative speech just before the riots in North East Delhi and featured in WhatsApp chats as an inspiration to kill Muslims.
Bloomsbury quickly issued a statement that the virtual book launch had been announced by the authors without their approval.
The next day, #ShameOnBloomsbury started trending on Twitter. I took part in that hashtag. If you click on that hashtag, you will find that nobody threatened Bloomsbury. We simply tagged Bloomsbury in an effort to make the publishing house aware that their book was being endorsed by a man who can be seen on video giving a warning to the police that he and his men would take the law into their own hands if the police didn’t clear the roads of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors.
The same day, Bloomsbury withdrew itself from publishing the book and issued a statement which said, “Bloomsbury strongly supports freedom of speech but also has a deep sense of responsibility towards society.”
A number of accusations and concerns followed this announcement. Let’s address them one by one.
Was curtailment of freedom of expression at play?
Anybody with even a minute idea about the power dynamics in the country right now would not really be able to accuse those who protested against the book of this. And, if Kapil Mishra’s provocative speech and slogans can be omitted from the Delhi police’s “chronology” leading to the riots, then what makes you think a book mirroring his ideas could really be “banned”?
Yes, “ban” is the word used by the authors of the book and their sympathisers. First of all, a ban can be imposed only by the State, with which many of us who protested don’t enjoy affectionate relations. Bloomsbury had every right to publish the book, and we had every right to register our protest against it. We simply flagged what we believed to be outright lies being presented in a book supposedly based on ‘fact-finding reports’. We thought an international publishing giant must be aware of the company it was choosing to be associated with.
The ball was now in Bloomsbury’s court. It was completely free to not believe us and to continue investing its belief in the authors of the book. Had it done that, again, we would have been free to judge it and put it under a category that includes those who have collaborated with the alleged riot instigators. We would have thus not have invested our energy if the publisher was already a known collaborator – for example, a website like ‘OpIndia’.
Did we collaborate with any ‘international lobby’ to put pressure on the publisher?
It would be quite insensitive to associate the outrage of Indian Muslims with any “lobby”. The community was at the receiving end of the violence that engulfed Delhi. Their outrage against the book came out of their painful experiences at the hands of the people endorsing it.
How do you think residents of North East Delhi should respond on seeing Mishra endorsing a book on the Delhi riots, on whose instructions, according to several complaints filed with the Delhi police, the mob beat them and their loved ones up? How do you think they should respond when they see all their complaints going un-investigated and the man in the question endorsing a book on the violence that he might be found responsible for if investigated impartially?
Facts versus claims
The claim of the authors that we outraged against “without even reading the book” looks ridiculous, especially considering they revealed some of the content themselves. One such page tweeted by Monika Arora claimed that Shaheen Bagh adopted a Maoist model to launch attacks.
Now, this perception should not have been accepted by the editors as a fact. Yes, it is true that Shaheen Bagh and the anti-CAA protests have been included by the Delhi police in its chargesheet as part of the chronology leading to the riots. But this cannot be claimed to be as a fact since it is still being contended in the courts.
The fact is that 77% of those killed in the riots are Muslims, according to the affidavit filed by Delhi police in the Delhi high court. Interestingly, the Delhi police believes that anti-CAA protesters, particularly of Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh, orchestrated these riots, despite the fact that 77% of the killed maybe called as anti-CAA protesters or their sympathisers.
That’s why these claims cannot be established as facts and hence they are being contended in courts of law. The argument which might have shaped these claims into the supposedly ‘factual narrative’ propagated by the book, was reflected by one of the panelists at the book launch – ‘OpIndia’ website in-charge Nupur Sharma.
Sharma said that she believes the Delhi riots were “anti-Hindu riots” despite the fact that more Muslims were killed, because, according to her, apparently Muslims started it through anti-CAA protests and Hindus finished it. She also went on to say that Muslims were killed in larger numbers because Hindus were in larger numbers and they killed Muslims in defence. I have yet to find another example where “attackers” lose 77% of the total men killed, while “defenders” kill 77% of the rival faction while defending.
So, it is understandable that no matter if the authors claim that they concluded these riots to be anti-Hindu in nature based on fact-finding reports, their claim is based on dubious arguments as mentioned above. However, it is true that we should not be deciding what kind of fact-finding reports an editing team of a publishing house should consider. That’s why we took to social media to make them aware of the irrational arguments presented as facts that they were going to provide a platform to.
Unreasonable comparison with other incidents
Bloomsbury’s decision also drew comparison to incidents from the past. One such was the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. This was a curtailment of freedom of expression as it was a State-imposed ban on a book, unlike the case with the book on the Delhi riots. Yes, the publisher cancelled at the last moment, but that is between the publisher and the authors. The State was not involved in this decision. If the authors feel that they have been wronged by the publisher, they are free to move to courts.
This incident also drew comparison with how the Karni Sena responded to the movie Padmaavat without even watching it. This is absurd because the methods of protest applied are completely different. We just took to social media to voice our concerns, unlike the Karni Sena which was involved in vandalism across the country. In fact, a BJP leader from Haryana, Suraj Pal Amu, went a step further and announced a bounty of Rs 10 crore on Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Drawing another unreasonable comparison, one of the authors of the book, Sonali Chitalkar called the incident “our Charlie Hebdo moment”, comparing it to the attack that killed 12 people at the French satirical newspaper following the publication of a cartoon on Prophet Mohammed. This comparison doesn’t stand because no incidents of violence were reported against anyone involved with the writing of and the publication of the book. That should not happen with anyone and if anyone faces this kind of attack, then that would be a serious attack on freedom of expression and we would take a firm stand against the perpetrators.
What all these comparisons ignore is the fact that the above cited examples were all works of fiction, or art, or satire, a State ban or they involved violence. The book on the Delhi riots is not a piece of art, satire or a work of fiction (at least it doesn’t claim to be). It claims to be based on fact-finding reports. So, if the people believe those facts to be far from true, then they have the right to protest against it democratically.
The methods applied to protest against Satanic Verses, Padmaavat, or Charlie Hebdo were extremely criminal in nature and were correctly not applied here. In fact, the very next day, a right-wing publishing house by the name of Garuda Prakashan happily took up the job of publishing the book on the Delhi riots.
Can the right-wing replicate it in future?
One of the concerns voiced by those who didn’t agree with the outrage surrounding the book was that this model may be adopted by the right-wing in the future.
They should take inspiration from Monika Arora and do some fact finding. It is a very interesting fact that if you turn back the clock to 2011, you would find one of the authors of the book in question and the new ambassador of freedom of speech, Arora, advocating for petitioners who had called for passages in Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus to be removed. Eventually, Penguin pulped Doniger’s book.
Maybe when Arora will write a book on threats to freedom of expression, she will mention this fact. But taking her track record of finding facts into consideration, it isn’t likely.
It should be noted that even a legal route was not adopted by the protesters against the book on the Delhi riots. The difference between the method applied by us and the method applied by them still remains. Nobody threatened Bloomsbury or the authors with any action, legal or otherwise. People just created a channel to voice their concerns.
Kaushik Raj is a Delhi-based student, writer and poet. He writes on social and political issues.
Featured image: The cover of the Delhi Riots 2020 book. Photo: www.garudabooks.com