Lawrence Liang Posts

“What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures”

On 12 February 2016, the elected president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union ( JNUSU) , Kanhaiya Kumar, was picked up by the police from the campus. The arrest of two more students followed. During the three weeks that the arrested students, including Kanhaiya Kumar, remained in jail before securing bail, the JNUSU president, teachers and media persons faced physical attacks and intimidation at the court premises, even in the presence of the police. All this was perpetuated in the name of ‘nationalism’. 

…With each passing day, more and more citizens came out to ‘Stand with JNU’ to defend the ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘autonomy of academic institutions’. These two became the rallying points for the protest movement that continues in one form or the other. 

( From the Acknowledgements to the book)

What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures consists of the set of public lectures organised by the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) on various perspectives on nationalism and on different meanings of freedom to defend the heterogenous intellectual tradition that is today under threat. Hundreds of students and teachers from different disciplines gathered in the evening at the protest site, called Freedom Square, to listen to scientists, philosophers and social scientists speaking on issues of nationalism, academic autonomy and freedom of speech. Some of the contributors were Shashi Tharoor, Prabhat Patnaik, Gopal Guru, Achin Vanaik, Tanika Sarkar, Lawrence Liang, A. Mangai, G. Arunima, Nivedita Menon, Suvir Kaul, Jayati Ghosh et al.

The lectures were uploaded on YouTube and the transcripts were published by HarperCollins India. Interestingly the lectures were printed as they were delivered  — in English or Hindi. Also for a seminal collection such as this the paperback is reasonably priced at Rs 299 making it within accessible reach of many readers. There are many fascinating lecturers. One of those invited was eminent historian and founder members of JNU — Prof. Romila Thapar. She spoke on ” The Past as Seen as Ideologies Claiming to be a Nationalist” ( 6 March 2016).

Here is an extract:

…the reading and interpretation of the past requires a trained understanding of the sources and a sensitivity to understanding what has been written. The political requirements of today cannot be imposed on the history of the past. To maintain a generalized statement that the period of the last thousand years was one of the victimization and enslavement of the Hindus by the Muslims is historically unacceptable. This kind of generalization feeds communal nationalism. That is why I am cautioning against it. Unfounded generalizations have to be replaced by analytical history. 

At the time of Independence and soon after ( when none of you were born!), we had no problems defining nationalism and the definition was widely accepted. Nationalism meant declaring every Indian as an equal citizen of India and upholding the rights of every citizen to that equality. Today, efforts are being made to obfuscate it. Nationalism draws on reliable history and not on the contorted history that feeds communal ideologies. Reliable history demands critical enquiry which, as we all know, is essential to the advancement of knowledge. It is expected of a university to critically enquire into what  publicly may be claimed. Nationalism gives an identity to the citizen. The citizen is pre-eminent but no citizen or group of citizens can claim superiority over others as citizens, irrespective of what may be the basis of the claim. Citizenship is founded on the equality of all and the equal rights of all. Incisive debates on this are part of the nationalist enterprise, and this is an ongoing enterprise in the relationship between history and nationalism. Universities are the obvious places for such debates. We in India have had a head start due to our Constitution and with our commitment to making the nation a secular democracy. This is what we are committed to as Indians and what we are committed to when we became independent, and this commitment has to continue as the hallmark of our nationalism. 

This is a fascinating anthology which will be a keeper. Amazon India has termed it as a “bestseller” but at the time of writing print editions of the book were unavailable on the website. Anyhow it is worth possessing and mulling over the lectures delivered. Ideas can only begat more ideas — for better or for worse, only time will tell.

12 March 2017 

 

Tamil author Perumal Murugan stands tall, Bookwitty

(My article on Perumal Murugan and the magnificent judgement delivered by Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on 5 July 2016. It was published on the wonderful European literary website Bookwitty.com on 2 August 2016. Here is the original url: https://bookwitty.com/text/tamil-author-perumal-murugan-stands-tall/579a0b24acd0d01df04c6447 . As an addendum to the published article I am adding three very significant quotes provided by eminent historian Romila Thapar, lawyer Lawrence Liang and Prof. Venkatachalapathy. Unfortunately due to lack of space these could not accommodated in the original article. Read on.)

 

 

Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”

It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.

The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.

When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.

Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”

In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.

But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.

The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.

In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”

The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.

After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.

Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”

Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”

***

Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.

Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.

Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”

Lawrence Liang adds:

So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the  terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
3 August 2016

 

 

2016: Reading Order ( Asian Age, 3 January 2016)

books_32016 is an exciting year for books in India. Aravind Adiga, William Dalrymple, Aman Sethi and Romila Thapar will return in 2016 with new offerings, along with some exciting biographies and memoirs, including by Pranab Mukherjee, Karan Johar, Bhimsen Joshi. By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose ( The url for this story is available at: http://www.asianage.com/books/2016-reading-order-009 and it was published in print on Sunday, 3 January 2016)

The 2016 reading list is a wonderful balance between print, digital and self-published books. 2015 saw the launch of two publishing houses — Speaking Tiger and Juggernaut Books, with the latter focusing primarily on phonebooks. 2015 also saw the launch of new imprints like Aleph spotlight which features short books by India’s greatest writers and thinkers on current issues in the country; Harper Black focuses on criminal fiction; Seagull Books announced its Arab List; Juggernaut Books is the digital partner for some of Tulika Books children’s titles and Mapin has a Rethinking Conservation Series in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

According to the Nielsen Book Market Report on India 2015 trade publishing by genre is divided by 30 per cent adult fiction; 45 per cent adult non-fiction and 25 per cent children and young adults. Readers’ preferences are contemporary fiction, children’s fiction, crime, thriller and adventure, fiction. The 2016 highlights represent these categories.

Non-fiction
There is a very strong collection of non-fiction titles. Two unusual collections focus on an India not heard of regularly: Landscapes of Unequal India, edited by Jyotsna Singh and Akshay Deshmane where Indian journalists write medium form essays of original reportage about contemporary India and First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India (edited by Orijit Sen) is an anthology of non-fiction comics, featuring works by reporters, activists, artists, anthropologists and oral historians based in India. The authors use the medium of comics to reflect upon experiences of displacement, consumption, activism, legal history and more. India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani published to accompany his BBC series explores the lives of 50 Indians from Buddha to Dhirubhai Ambani. Noted journalist and Hindi writer Mrinal Pande’s Dhvanion ke Alok Main Stree by is about the vast contribution of professional women musicians (largely tawaifs till the mid-20th century) to Hindustani classical and semi-classical music in post-1857 India. Red Light Dispatches: Survivor Stories from India Brothels edited By Anuradha Joshi; The Gender of Caste by Charu Gupta; Beyond Caste by Sumit Guha, India’s Polity in the Age of Akbar by Iqtidar Alam Khan and The Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke which documents the fascinating exchange between the Persian-speaking Islamic elite of the early Mughal empire and traditional Sanskrit scholars. Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj by Omar Khan is the story of some of the most beautiful and popular postcards during the Raj and it talks about the first postcard publishers between 1892 and 1947.
Curation by Michael Bhaskar is on the art of selecting useful information to form meaningful collections.
With so much digital immersion happening, Cyberpsyched: the impact of human technology on Human Behaviour by Mary Aiken has to be read just as Prabir Purkayastha on net neutrality and the Internet. Some other must reads include Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audio Politics of a World Musical Revolution with an introduction by Naresh Fernandes; Kohinoor by William Dalrymple; Bad News by journalist Anjan Sundaram is an account of the battle for free speech in modern Rwanda. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is about a writer’s passion for another language, in this case, Italian. Invisible Libraries by Lawrence Liang, Monica James and Danish Sheikh where the authors explore various aspects of bibliophilia, especially in the way it manifests itself via our love affair with libraries.

Biography/Memoir
Biographies always enthral readers. They are also a time capsule captured in the account of a personality’s life consisting mostly of politicians, film idols and successful businesspeople. Look out for Gandhi: An illustrated Biography by Pramod Kapoor, The Turbulent Years (1980-96) by Pranab Mukherjee, Vol. 2; memoirs by Margaret Alva, P. Chidambaram and Teesta Setalvad; Turnaround by Tarun Gogoi, Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art, edited by Dr Parul Dave-Mukherjee; The Biography on Sunil Dutt by Priya Dutt; The Unsuitable Boy by filmmaker Karan Johar; Emraan Hashmi Memoirs by Emraan Hashmi with Bilal Siddiqi; Memoirs of a Singer’s Son: Bhimsen Joshi, My Father by Raghavendra Bhimsen Joshi (Translated by Shirish Chindhade); Shashi Kapoor: A Biography by Aseem Chhabra, Rishi Kapoor: Autobiography and Leonard by William Shatner and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: Biography by Seema Singh, Anand Kumar: The Man Behind Super 30 by Anand Kumar, First and Last Loves: An Autobiography by Ruskin Bond, Pallavi Iyer’s Motherhood Memoir and an unusual biography of the mango — Mangifera Indica.

Politics
Politics is a subject of enduring interest in India. AAP and Kejriwal: The Promise and Pitfalls by Venkitesh Ramakrishnan explores what this party and its leadership means to India. Modi and His Challenges by Rajiv Kumar explores the efficacy of the Prime Minister’s approach to structural reforms and governance. Rana Ayyub’s self-published investigation of the expose of the Gujarat fake encounters will be the one to watch out for. And then there is Prashant Kishor, a key strategist in the landslide victories of Mr Modi and Nitish Kumar. Kishor dissects what influences Indian voters today, their aspirations and what they now demand of their leaders. Aman Sethi’s The Making of Riot, Violence Studies edited by Kalpana Kannabiran and Tabish Khair’s The New Xenophobia will be good additions too.

Business/Academics
Politics is closely intertwined with the world of business. So noted economist Kaushik Basu’s An Economist in the Real World: The Art of Policymaking in India, Ruchir Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of Nations and business journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets should be interesting.
Academic publications that can easily crossover into layman’s reading would be the fabulous The Historian and her craft: Romila Thapar (4 vols) which provides her complete trajectory as a scholar. and historian. Other titles in this strain are Literary Activism: A Collection of Essays edited by Amit Chaudhuri and Intimate Class Act: Friendship and Desire in Indian and Pakistani Women’s Fiction in English by Maryam Mirza, An Uncivil Woman: Critical Readings of Ismat Chughtai by Rakhshanda Jalil, Modern Indian by Giles Tillotson, 100 Design Classics by Jahnvi Dameron Nandan and The Oxford Readings in Indian Art edited by B.N. Goswamy.

Translations
Translations are rapidly acquiring a niche that sells well. Translating Bharat by Yatra Books in collaboration with Oxford Bookstore is a collection of essays that focuses on the specifics of translation. Some other titles to look out for are Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar (translated by Bilal Tanweer). Dilli Tha Jiska Naam by Intizar Husain is an evocative tale about Delhi translated for the first time into English (Ghazala Jamil) and Hindi (Shubham Mishra) simultaneously. Tamas translated by Daisy Rockwell commemorates the centenary celebrations of Bhisham Sahni. Then there is Pyre (Tamil) by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan; The Fire of Aoling by Anurag Mahanta, translated by Manjeet Baruah; Death Anniversary by K.P. Ramanunni, translated by Yaseen Ashraf; Indira Goswami’s Three Novellas: Breaking the Begging Bowl, The Blood of Devipeeth and Delhi: 5 November 1991 translated by Dibjyoti Sarma.
Narratives of Healing: Partition Memories from the Two Punjabs translated by Jasbir Jain and Tripti Jain; Bara: Drought (translated by Chandan Gowda) and Hindutva or Hind Svaraj by U.R. Ananthamurthy, Shahenshah by N. S. Inamdar, Zindaginama by Krishna Sobti, Shah Muhammad’s Tonga by Ali Akbar Natiq and The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol 3, edited by Rakesh Khanna. A&A have some wonderful titles translated from Norwegian like Wafflehearts by Maria Parr as Meri Best Friend Aur Main and the Pim & Pom stories by Mies Bouhuis, illustrated by Fiep Westendorp.

Children’s Books
Children’s literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Tara Books continues to publish titles that make handicrafts a relevant art for children such as The Cloth of the Mother Goddess. Red Turtle’s Exploring India series by Subhadra Sen Gupta, illustrated by Tapas Guha, will interest readers who want to know more about various facets of India.
The Ray Collection translated by Arunava Sinha et al is a collection of the best stories by the Ray family writers: Upendra Kishore, Sukumar Ray and Satyajit Ray and The Fox’s Wedding by Harindranath Chattopadhyay is illustrated by Atanu Roy. They are also publishing Monkey Trouble and Other Stories: The Ruskin Bond Comics Book 1.

Duckbill will publish for children Invisible People: Stories of Courage from India’s Streets by Harsh Mander. Excavating History by Devika Cariappa for children delves into stories about archaeological sites. Duckbill will publish Special Agent Nanju by Zainab Suliaman, an unusual and action-packed book set in an integrated school for children with special needs. Scholastic will continue with its diverse fare but particularly exciting are the travelogues for children written by Jerry Pinto and Parineeta Shetty and Malgudi-style stories of growing up by Lalita Iyer called When Appa Bought a Buffalo and Other Stories. HarperCollins India is launching its Beebop series of graded reading and publishing Wattpad star Estelle Maskame’s Did I mention I Need You? And Did I mention I Miss You? Tota Books and Mango Books have a delicious collection of picture books lined up for 2016.

Fiction
Fiction, as always, is overflowing with choices. Debut writers Kanishk Tharoor, Shubha Mudgal and Sunny Leone will publish short story collections. Other well-known authors who will return with new books are Mridula Koshy, Aravind Adiga, China Mieville, Don Delillo, Helen Oyeyemi, Maha Khan Philips, Tahmima Anam, Meg Rosoff, Graham Swift, Samantha Shannon, Lucia Berlin and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni. Hindu mythology is being retold: The Story of Hanuman by Mala Dayal, illustrated by Taposhi Ghoshal, Arshia Sattar’s Hanuman, a beautifully illustrated edition of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, The Oxford Mahabharatha Series: Women (Vol. 1) by Nrishina Bhaduri.

6 Jan 2016

PubSpeak: Total Recall

PubSpeak: Total Recall

My column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online focuses on the Wendy Doniger book controversy. Here is the url to it:   http://businessworld.in/news/economy/total-recall/1266222/page-1.html   . ) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose On 11 February, Penguin Books India reached a compromise drawn up in a Delhi Court that insisted it cease the publication and sale of American Indologist, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in India within six months. Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samitri had filed a civil suit against the publishers to withdraw from circulation all copies. Given that Batra had filed the case four years ago and it was still subjudice, the news of this compromise spread like wildfire. Later that day, Doniger issued a press statement “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”Wendy Doniger

PBI logoPenguin Books India released a statement on 14 February stating “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can…. The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.”

What followed the announcement perhaps was only a natural outcome given the speed at which social media helps communicate information. There was public outrage at this development— newspapers, print, digital, and, of course, social media forums. A number of commentators, journalists, and even Penguin authors wrote passionately against Penguin Book India’s decision to destroy the book. Arundhati Roy in an open letter spoke of her distress and said “You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least”. Nilanjana Roy, author and member of PEN Delhi wrote on censorship and how to remain free; Jakob de Roover in an outstanding essay “Untangling the Knot” discussed the complexities of governance, judiciary and free speech; journalist Salil Tripathi commented perceptively on the issue on many platforms ; Stephen Alter wrote, “Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write”; Penguin author and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri reiterated that “It’s important that the law protect all texts”; and Antara Dev Sen, Editor, The Little Magazine, wrote that the Indian Penal Code “Section 295A targets ‘deliberate and malicious acts (which include speech, writings or signs) intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. In an age of identity politics and hurt sentiments, this has been used frequently by politically motivated people to stifle free speech. But back in 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that only when there is a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings’ is it an offence under this law. Higher courts in India have consistently ruled in favour of freedom of speech and have protected books and people hauled to court under this law.”

In fact, two Penguin authors, Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, asked for their contracts to be terminated. Another Penguin author, Arshia Sattar (who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara from Sanskrit to English) expressed her dismay at the “complete capitulation” of the firm and how her “pride and that faith has been shaken…of being with a publishing house that protected its people and the books they wrote”.

A counter legal initiative perhaps was expected. According to the website, Legally India, advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a 30-paragraph legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. The notice sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is no longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public. Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published Doniger’s book, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabharata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”

At the recent Globalocal event (German Book Office, New Delhi’s annual B2B conference on publishing), a regional language publisher wondered if it was possible for any other publisher to option this book and publish it, after all it has not been legally banned in this territory. Echoing this sentiment, Shamnad Basheer, IPR lawyer, writing in Spicy IP, reflected upon the pros and cons of compulsory licensing, and whether it was possible if a publisher decides to stop publication, one could apply for a compulsory license.

Globally Penguin has been in the news related to their peripheral businesses and their merger with Random House. In 2012, Pearson PLC (of which Penguin Books India is a part of) acquired the self-publishing firm, Author Solutions, for $116 million. But in 2013, this deal soured as a number of disgruntled authors filed lawsuits against Author Solutions for its poor service. In the landmark case pertaining to ebooks and agency pricing, in April 2012, the US Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers, including Penguin, for conspiring to raise prices and restrain competition. This was done after Amazon filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, Penguin was obliged to pay $75 million. George Packer observes in the New Yorker, “an enormous sum in a business that has always struggled to maintain respectable profit margins”. On 1 July 2013, the global merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced. It was a strategic alliance, forged as a response to the growing presence of Amazon in the publishing industry. The formation of Penguin Random House (PRH) has created a group that has 25 per cent of the market share. A merger comes at a cost of resources that have to be taken into account for the new firm to begin work on a strong footing.

In Oct 2013, Penguin Random House announced the completion of its purchase of Ananda Publishers Private Limited’s minority stake in Penguin Books India. It plans to invest Rs 55 crore or $8.6 million for this stake buy. As banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian, with whom in June 2013 Penguin Books India signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) wrote on his blog with respect to Doniger’s case, “publishing is a business”. For any firm, particularly in publishing, this is a lot of money being moved around its balance sheets.  Naturally the ripple effect of these financial adjustments will be felt even in the local markets—it is like conducting business in a global village where in the context of a globally contacted world, the minimum consumption that people desire is also influenced by what is going on elsewhere.

Similarly, with the Doniger case, Penguin Books India has probably taken an informed business decision, based upon a global strategy when it signed this deal on 11 February, in order to preserve a healthy English-language publishing market in India.

Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Books India, in a guest blog post in 2012 during the Banned Books week, had this to say: “Injunctions make things costly, time consuming, and take our energies away from the work we are really meant to do. And so we try and avoid them as much as possible. Apart from the fact that we don’t fight hard enough for them, I wonder whether it means we impose a kind of self-censorship on ourselves.”

Ironically this latest controversy broke exactly twenty-five years after the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’ published by Penguin. At the time, his publishers stood by him and did not pulp the book. The fact is publishing is a business that is built upon the creative energies and emotions of people. India is also a functioning democracy. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen. With the General Elections less than a hundred days away, the need for openness, frank conversations without any inhibitions, and certainly not a capitulation to any ideological position is imperative.

Scholar-journalist and historian Mukul Kesavan points out that that selling books is not like selling any other commodity. Publishers have moral responsibility and a publisher voluntarily agreeing to withdraw a book has previously been challenged with the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji in 2007. Oxford University Press voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. An FIR was issued against the publisher and printer of the book in Pune (one charge, under Section 153 A, was ‘inciting class hatred’) and the printer was actually arrested. When the case (‘Manzar Sayeed Khan vs State Of Maharashtra, 2007’) came up before the Supreme Court, however, the government of Maharashtra’s case against the author and the publisher of the book was found to be wanting. So, there is a precedent by the Supreme Court to rule in favour of free speech.

Nevertheless, the Wendy Doniger book controversy raises a bunch of issues pertaining to the publishing industry. Questions about legislation and the freedom of speech, what are the ethics involved in publishing, do readers and authors have a right that they can exercise, what does it mean for licensing, do possibilities exist in a mixed environment of digital and print publishing such as do readers have a choice?

Finally does this self-censorship by a publishing firm mean an inadvertent promotion for self-publishing, encouraging authors to be responsible for their books completely? Interestingly in a space of less than six weeks I have heard John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Random House and Jon Fine, Director, Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon talk about their publishing businesses and both have stressed upon the importance of discoverability of an author. This controversy could not have come at a better time for Doniger and even Penguin. They have achieved the Streisand effect whereby in an attempt to censor a piece of information, it has had the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely. It has achieved what no PR could have—a boost in sales.

21 Feb 2014