The raging controversy over the Delhi riots book isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about values.
A book launch was organised for Delhi 2020: The Untold Story. Some persons notorious for spewing hate were invited to the function, predictably leading to social media outrage. And the publisher, Bloomsbury India, withdrew from publishing it.
Is this a legit win for progressives?
Is acknowledging this win (yes, it’s a win, as I explain later) against liberal values? Is it an assault on freedom of speech and expression, or FoE? Certainly not. Many prominent voices of the Hindu rightwing have such a dismal understanding of FoE they consider a Twitter user blocking them a violation. It is unfortunate that some people outside of this ecosystem have bought into this faulty narrative.
Have I read this book? No. I have, however, read a few excerpts from the draft whitewashing BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s role in instigating the violence on page 87; a classic communal dog whistle that pulls Syria, ISIS, Pakistan into the picture on page 94; and some fake news about Shaheen Bagh on page 100. I also didn’t miss, on page 9, a reference to the most enduring flight of Vivek Agnihotri’s fancy – “Urban Naxal” – and the description of the violence as an “experiment" to be replicated in other Muslim-dominated areas of India.
My view wouldn’t have been different even if I hadn’t read the excerpts. For I knew that the book launch had three “guests of honour” – Vivek Agnihotri, Nupur Sharma and Kapil Mishra. These luminaries aren’t exactly known for their academic heft or thoughtful commentaries or even a remarkable achievement in their stated professions (which, by the way, aren’t exactly clear for any of them). What they are known for are anti-minority sloganeering, calls to violence, hate speech, fake news, and general loony conduct. There is intersectionality as far as which one of these luminaries is known for which of these “virtues”, so feel free to explore links besides than the ones provided here to figure out each of their core competence.
The lady has written a book based on demonstrable falsehoods and heads a platform that frequently peddles fake news and bigotry. An editor of this wonderful portal has an obsession that he often articulates on their platform with “chheeloing the akhrot” of those he disagrees with. That is OpIndia clever speak for the skinning of testicles. Smart, no? The BJP leader’s outright calls to violence, bad histrionics and hate are his claim to fame.
The third, the one and only love of my life, the Subhash Ghai to my Madhuri Dixit, the Quentin Tarantino to my Uma Thurman, who made me famous and masterminded my finest work has written at least a couple of books, made some films and, most importantly, made “Facts Are Not Facts” a thing. My interview with him viralled and for that I am forever grateful to Vivek sir. In it, he selflessly made a complete ass of himself while I sat back and watched. People too generously and incorrectly credit me with that performance; the flawless lunacy was all him. He has been caught lying too many times to count – watch the full interview for a few instances – yet is held up as the Hindu rightwing’s answer to Mukul Kesavan or Ram Guha.
This cheerful lot would make some publishers or literature fests jump through hoops to host them, and others cringe. They were scheduled to speak at a virtual function which used Bloomsbury India’s name and logo and was marketed as some sort of a book launch. The publisher claimed they hadn’t been informed about the use of their name and logo for this function and they hadn’t permitted it. Facing social media outrage for providing a platform for bashing a religious minority and pushing a divisive and false narrative – and maybe some pressure on its UK headquarters – Bloomsbury India pulled out from taking the book to the market.
Nobody’s rights were trampled upon. Nobody was attacked, beaten, killed, or threatened with any of those consequences. And no animals or buildings were harmed in the making of this win. That is a good thing.
A balancing act in the marketplace of ideas and the market of commercial returns
I will not get into how this is not a ban because that’s too basic a concept to go into here. If we can’t even understand that, maybe we need to revisit every axiom and First Principle – such as, it is bad to murder people, it is bad to target communities with hate speech, it is wrong to put out fake data and false news at lectures, it is bad to ask for people to be shot. What do you know, though, we just might revisit all such principles too given the rate at which settled matters are being reopened.
The book has not been disallowed publication. One publisher, Bloomsbury India, is doing a balancing act, catering to a hate market (they have published a book by Vivek Facts Are Not Facts Agnihotri and one by social media bile streamer Sanjay Dixit). The market for hate is booming right now, driven, as with every boom, by some questionable assumptions. (The assumption here is that the target consumer for this market reads books.) But this is not the time to discuss market failures. This is a publisher’s tightrope walk, between trying to monetise a perceived ripe commercial market for hate and going too far in that direction at the cost of credibility in the liberal-dominated ideas market. Having this book in their catalogue could make it difficult to retain acceptability among other potential target consumers, not to mention authors who are the key input in their product, and positioning in an industry where liberal ideas dominate.
Another publisher, Garuda Prakashan, has already agreed to publish Delhi Riots: The Untold Story. So, you will still get to read it if you choose to.
So, the first myth that the marketplace of ideas guarantees which shop will showcase your idea needs to be busted. An appropriate shop has stepped up. You want Mastram (aasti mein, aag lage basti mein) books or Human Digest soft porn, there is a market for that as well. Just don’t insist that they are published by the publisher you want.
Is the timing of the rejection inconsistent with liberal values?
Not in my view. Publishers reject books at various stages. When a writer submits a first draft, when a writer makes a call and even proposes a project. Sometimes if a senior editor overrules an earlier decision to print. In some cases, it can happen at the board level for reasons of market or brand positioning. It can happen at any stage for any reason. A bad judgment call will have consequences of possible lawsuits, and other authors withdrawing from their contracts with Bloomsbury India. These are acceptable and healthy ripples of the contest.
Is social media outrage over platforming hate mongering an acceptable reason for withdrawal from a project? Is the day before the book launch an acceptable time to do so? Yes, to both. If the clash of ideas shouldn’t happen in this manner, then should it happen on the streets through bloodshed, so another book can be written about the violence? Should it happen with state power being unjustly used like in the case of the Satanic Verses and many other cases in countries with preliterate ideas on speech and censorship? Should it happen with Karni Sena-type goons beating up or ransacking film sets and using violence or threats of violence? Or should we consider Charlie Hebdo type of incidents as an exchange of ideas?
One of the book’s authors, Sonali Chitalkar, demonstrating her mastery over reasonable commentary actually called it India’s Charlie Hebdo moment! Yes, the incident where a fanatical Muslim man shot dead 12 members of a magazine for publishing his Prophet’s cartoon. The comparison may give you an idea of the accuracy and quality of her writing.
That is not the world we want. That is not the kind of engagement centuries of “civilization” should have led to. Outrage is not the same as violence or murder. Today, social media articulation, debates, seminars and calls to better sense are how ideas are fought and defeated. This is how ideological combat should be.
How do value systems collide and what does desirable combat look like?
A clash of value systems is what this is about. What is acceptable chronicling, documenting and narrative building and what is uncivilised. It is not about FoE. Platitudes like “an answer to a book is a book” is not the same as “an answer to a book by Bloomsbury India is an answer to a book by Bloomsbury India”.
At a time when I see people write 1,000 words on something that should not be more than a tweet, one can comfortably say the word soup is now a big cauldron of churning ideas in which tweets, books, articles and panel hysteria collide. This is how ideological combat should be and what it should remain restricted to.
What is an appropriate value for any given time is what progressive versus conservative battles (among many others) are all about. There was a time when casteism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of hate and prejudice were acceptable in life and in pop culture. Today’s White House (even with a man like Donald Trump there) won’t host the screening of a film like The Birth Of A Nation. A film studio in India or abroad seeking respectability won’t have gay or effeminate men represented like films from the 70s or 80s did. Today, a news studio won’t have anchors indulge in or encourage their guests to indulge in anti-Muslim rhetoric...Oh, ok. We are a few decades behind in that space. But you get my drift.
Convincing people and organisations that certain things that were considered kosher once but are not anymore is part of being progressive. Using casteist names as slurs like ch…, bh… or racist taunts like the N word in writing are no longer acceptable. You indulge in such repulsive conduct and you can say goodbye to being published by respectable platforms; you will possibly have to find the likes of OpIndia and Garuda Prakashan. But even this list will and should keep shrinking. Better ideas should and do prevail on their own merit.
So, what does a respectable victory in the marketplace of ideas look like? A little like a publisher withdrawing a book that reeks of hate and falsehood. This conception may be wasted on a generation (of any ideological persuasion) for whom victories are demonstrated by crumbling domes of mosques, buildings set alight, swearing-in ceremonies, ideological adversaries being beaten or jailed. But that is not how it need be in Delhi 2020.
Convincing individuals, organisations, institutions, and advertisers using words and the pressure of collective conscience is how a zeitgeist is achieved. This is how we establish values that define our time on this planet. For a large chunk of the liberal elite, dominating this conversation came as part of a legacy or by accident of birth and access to the dominant social set and narrative setters. They have forgotten what intellectual and ideological combat is and what victory in that combat looks like. Years of complacency have made them lazy. We need not worry about how marking this as a win is against liberal values. The future is here.
This is the most divisive, worrying and noisy battle against primitive ideas that I have witnessed in my lifetime. Some progressives are fighting in it, some are standing on the sidelines telling us how we are not doing it right. In the words of our dear leader, aise progressives ko vanakkam!
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