In February this year, an octogenarian by the name of Dinanath Batra became the most hated person in India’s Left-liberal clique. This was around the time when a paranoia called “saffronisation” had started to take root in the same circle.
In the midst of the outrage against Batra, I got an email urging me to sign an online petition (the kind that the country’s Fabindia patrons dutifully forward to each other, fully aware of the futility of the exercise). The petition, seeking reform of Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code — sections under which Batra had appealed to the court to ban a particular book — argued that “the way to respond to ideas one dislikes is not to censor them but to produce better ones”.
It was drafted by Ananya Vajpeyi, who happens to “live in Delhi and work in a place called CSDS” – the Centre for Social and Development Studies.
That, though, is an introduction that does little justice to Vajpeyi’s accomplishments. She’s been a Rhodes scholar and has taught in the University of Massachusetts and Columbia University. More notably, her last book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, was named book of the year 2012 by The Guardian and The New Republic. Vajpeyi, according to her biography note on the CSDS website, is currently “writing a life of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar”.
Six months down the line in August – as the saffronisation paranoia dramatically waned – I received another mail. This one, too, was drafted by Vajpeyi. An articulately-worded email, this one was apparently leaked and part of a private correspondence. Except that it was forwarded to everyone remotely associated to academics and journalism in the capital.
Vajpeyi, in the email, talks about a “new volume” of work based on Ambedkar’s seminal Annihilation of Caste. She contends that this particular new volume should attract legal action because of “violation of copyright”. The volume of work Vajpeyi is referring to is Arundhati Roy’s, which begins with 124-page book-length introduction, titled The Doctor and the Saint. Vajpeyi writes:
“…one of the things not known to many people is that the writings of phule and ambedkar are controlled and managed by an especially constituted committee with an office in mumbai. it is this committee that has brought out some 22 volumes of ambedkar’s selected works over the years. It was originally headed by the distinguished ambedkar scholar, the late vasant moon, and it has a statutory status in the government of maharashtra, department of education. it basically has all the source materials — the published and unpublished corpus of phule and ambedkar — and is responsible for bringing these out in published form at a low price affordable for a wide cross-section of readers. you may have seen the blue and white hardbound volumes of ambedkar’s selected writings produced by this committee.
…it is my understanding that without explicit prior permission from this committee, no work by ambedkar may be annotated, edited (critically or otherwise), and published for profit in the public domain by any writer, editor or publisher. if anyone does so, it a violation of copyright and may attract — in fact should attract — legal action.
However, a closer dissection of the copyright laws – and they are particularly tenuous for Ambedkar’s works – reveals that Vajpeyi is mistaken. As pointed out in this article in Down to Earth magazine by journalist Latha Jishnu, the Babasaheb Ambedkar Source Material Publication (BASMP), in February 2014, admitted that it did not own the copyright and only had the lease for it. It further submitted that the copyright to Ambedkar’s works is owned by members of his family, which had given the rights to the state of Maharashtra on payment of royalty.
It was after that admission that Navayana, the publishers of Roy’s new volume of the Annihilation of Caste, went ahead with the book. S Anand, publisher of Navayana, when contacted by Newslaundry, said – “ Everything is out there. You are free to draw your own conclusions. I have nothing to say”.
So that essentially leaves us with only two possibilities as to why Vajpeyi wrote the email: she wasn’t aware of the BASMP’s admission, or she thought only an academic is entitled to write on Ambedkar. Irrespective, she wanted the book off the shelves.
Vajpeyi is being accused of trying to get Roy’s book banned on the sly (the email does suggest that in a fairly conspicuous fashion in spite of it being sheathed in language and tone that doesn’t betray that). But why would Vajpeyi – a liberal JNU-bred scholar who drafts petitions to uphold freedom of expression – do such a thing? Our guess is as good as yours. Maybe, the idea of another book on Ambedkar (by an author who has definitely more brand value) isn’t one to look forward to when your book on the same subject is due in a short while?
We contacted Vajpeyi for her side of the story but she refused to comment. She said she was in the middle of writing something and was going abroad in a few hours so couldn’t comment.
Strangely – or perhaps not – the country’s comrade club has also maintained a studied silence on the issue, choosing instead to tweet about the number of children dying because of Israel’s missiles. Does the fact that Vajpeyi is the wife of Basharat Peer – a connection she slips in towards the end of the email – a journalist and very much a part of India’s left-liberal circle handicap our liberals from calling a spade a spade? If that’s the case, the Right’s long-time grouse of the Left liberals being selective in their outrage may just have got some new validation.