(This is first article in the two-part series on freedom in book publishing. Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
A biography that traces Baba Ramdev’s rise from godman to tycoon has been caught up in a legal storm for over 11 months; Amish Tripathi’s upcoming book has been served a legal notice and its launch postponed; a nonfiction account on Bastar by Nandini Sundar came under pressure from a state government; and a critical book on the 2002 Gujarat riots by Rana Ayyub could not find a publisher.
Those who disseminate ideas through books have had their share of political coercion. “As a publisher I find that I have faced pressure and censorship across all political regimes,” says Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Juggernaut Books.
But now, an insidious method of going against authors and publishers has emerged — of causing delays through the courts. The fear of legal suits and defamation charges has assumed such proportions that it has led to rejections and self-censorship among publishers, industry insiders say.
In a series of interviews with key people holding top portfolios in some of India’s most prominent publishing houses, IANS ran a reality check on whether or not they have faced issues like self-censorship or pressure from political groups or legal action during the four years of the Narendra Modi government.
“There has only been a few legal cases in the court, but we have not faced any political pressure,” says Kapish Mehra, Managing Director of Rupa Books.
What emerges from these discussions is that political pressures on publishing houses is not “a new phenomenon” — both parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have practiced it. But the legal threat as a weapon to thwart public discourse through books has assumed menacing proportions.
Recently, writer Amish Tripathi was served a legal notice for his latest book Suheldev & The Battle of Bahraich. Tripathi announced the postponement of the July 16 launch “due to some circumstances beyond our control”. Earlier, pre-orders were being booked.
The announcement of the book was made at Sonali Bendre’s Book Club in Mumbai and the cover was launched by actor Varun Dhawan, who too has been sent a legal notice.
The book is said to revolve around Raja Suheldev, a semi-legendary Indian king from Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh. In the legal notice sent on June 25, a copy of which IANS has, the sender has accused the author and bollywood actor Varun Dhawan, of hurting “his and his communities’ sentiments”.
“Raja Suheldev is a godly figure among the Rajbhar community. I have received several messages and complaints from members of our community that Amish Tripathi has hurt their sentiments,” Jaiprakash Rajbhar, who sent the notice, told IANS over phone from Mumbai.
Rajbhar, an advocate, said that Uttar Pradesh text books for Class-VI clearly point out that Suheldev was from the Rajbhar community. “The author has referred to him as somebody from “other caste”. This is a historical blunder,” he said.
“Moreover, the cover of the book shows Suheldev half naked. A king who is fighting a battle and riding a horse could not afford a piece of cloth to cover his body?” he asked.
On such grounds are objections to work of great artistes being raised. Tripathi and publisher Westland have declined comment on the issue.
Tripathi is a writer of fame and repute. With gross retail sales of Rs 120 crores, his novels include The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas, The Oath of the Vayuputras, Ram: Scion of Ikshvaku and Sita: Warrior of Mithila.
Sarkar, who started her publishing career at Bloomsbury in London, then worked at Penguin Books India and rose to become India publishing head after Penguin’s merger with Random House, said that Juggernaut has published many politically brave books — I am a Troll, Shadow Armies,The Burning Forest and Mothering a Muslim.
“But the book we have run into the biggest legal trouble over — the biography of Baba Ramdev — is a non-political book,” Sarkar told IANS.
The publication and sale of Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, authored by Priyanka Pathak-Narain, has been stayed by the Delhi High Court, after a lower court had lifted a similar order earlier.
According to Baba Ramdev’s petition, the book mentions some details from his past that are “irresponsible, false (and) malicious”. Certain content, Ramdev’s petition said, “had been added without evidence and verification”.
Juggernaut said in its appeal that the book was “truthful, even-handed and balanced consideration of the history of Baba Ramdev, which has been meticulously researched and is based on public and recorded sources, most of which have been in the public domain for years”.
It all began on August 4, 2017 when in an ex-parte order, the Additional Civil Judge at the District Courts of Karkardooma in Delhi asked Juggernaut not to publish or sell the book. The injunction was lifted nine months later in April 2018.
But the freedom was not to last too long. In May 2018, the Delhi High Court restored the temporary injunction. Ramdev’s lawyer had told the court that certain parts of the book were “unfounded and had misleading material which are malicious and scandalous”.
Pathak-Narain, the author had told the court that the contents of the book represented “only reported true facts as gleaned from publicly available documents and contains legitimate and reasonable surmises and conclusions drawn therefrom”.
The next hearing in the case is in August. “We will fight it out up till the Supreme Court, if need be,” says Sarkar.
The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at Delhi University, who has been writing about Bastar and its people for 26 years, faced covert pressure from the state government to not publish or distribute the book. She chronicled how the armed conflict between the government and the Maoists had devastated the lives of some of India’s poorest, most vulnerable citizens in Bastar.
Fear of legal cases or political pressure often lead to publishers exercising their own version of self-censorship. Journalist Rana Ayyub, who was lately in the news for facing hate and threat messages on social media, could not find a mainstream publisher for her book Gujarat Files, an undercover expose of the 2002 riots in the state that claimed the lives of over 1,000 Muslims. She ended up publishing it herself. Ayyub, in a text message from London, expressed her unavailability to respond at present.
Industry insiders say that “legal suits, defamations proceedings and temporary injunctions” were their greatest fear. Injunctions can kill the fate of any book. They say that in eight out of ten cases, where a book can potentially be stayed by a court, mainstream publishers would avoid publishing it — or at least tell the author to remove content or “tone down” portions which are “objectionable”. (IANS)