Bloomsbury India will no longer be publishing a non-fiction title on the bloodshed that took place in Delhi in January, following protests that the book is not only factually unsubstantiated but also promotes a skewed and dangerous perspective.
This response over one book, in a country where Mein Kampf is a consistent bestseller while most new works find very few readers, needs to be understood in terms of context, not just principle. Right from Bloomsbury’s decision to publish it, to the clashing waves of opinion against and for it, to the withdrawal of publication (not equivalent to a ban, a legal measure that only a government can take), the industry has walked right into major chaos for future books. Especially ones that challenge the powerful.
The day after the withdrawal, another publisher stepped forward to release the controversial book. Online, supporters of the book’s ideas discussed digital self-publishing, which showed an incongruous victim mentality, since there’s enough infrastructure available to the right-leaning to establish brick-and-mortar publishing companies. The language of liberal ideology – terms like “marketplace of ideas” and “freedom of speech” – were repurposed to suit an anti-liberal agenda. All this happened while on the liberal side of things, anger against one publisher and declarations boycotting them were the main event.
Some ideas are more dangerous than others, but this is not so much because of an idea itself but because of the machinery that pitches that idea forth. The machinery around propaganda narratives has gained a firmer footing because of this incident. Books have been withdrawn because of pressure before (titles by Wendy Doniger and Salman Rushdie immediately come to mind), but not usually because of pressure from liberal quarters. This feels more like falling for a trap than a victory. With this precedent, fighting the next round, especially if suppression and censorship really are involved, will be harder.
The dissemination of ideas – including manipulations, fabrications and smokescreen-suppressions – happens in more dynamic ways today than ever before. With a cellphone, internet and a couple of apps, a layperson can easily create, forward and receive (mis)information. Then, there are more sophisticated and frightening uses of technology. The social justice and intellectual sectors have no handle on the speed at, and new shapes in, which it’s all happening. Books still have a place in this scheme of things, as knowledge repositories for those wanting to engage with a subject in more than a cursory way. But most people aren’t exploring any concept, even what they live or die or kill or swear by, at such depth.
The ways that information – false or true – explodes or trickles into public consciousness, and results in individual and collective actions for better and for worse, does not require something as time-intensive (both in its production and its consumption) as a book for propagation. The core message can be conveyed in a meme, a text, a few seconds of video. This is the larger context of this controversy. To fixate on one offensive book that no one beyond the already-convinced would have read is to not be on the same page at all with what is happening in the world at large.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 31st 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.