Was Bloomsbury’s Decision to Withdraw a Book on Delhi Riots Illiberal?

Social Commentary

Was Bloomsbury’s Decision to Withdraw a Book on Delhi Riots Illiberal?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

A book on the Delhi riots, which was due to be published by Bloomsbury India later this year, until it was pulped a few days ago, has been the subject of a heated debate on social media since Saturday.

It began after the line-up was announced for the pre-publication launch of Delhi Riots: The Untold Story, a 190-page book authored by Delhi University professors Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra, and advocate Monika Arora.

Among the guests invited for the event were Kapil Mishra, the BJP leader who was accused of delivering an inflammatory speech days before the riots broke out, Nupur Sharma, the editor of right-wing publication OpIndia, and Vivek Agnihotri, the director best known for his work on “urban naxals”.

As outrage grew on the internet over the composition of the panellists, however, the publishing house suddenly announced that it would withdraw the book. It said the event was planned without its knowledge and with the “participation of parties it didn’t approve of”. While accepting that freedom of speech was important, the publishing house also reasoned that it had a “deep sense of responsibility towards society”.

This argument was soon sorely contested on social media, with several prominent faces, including detractors like director Anurag Kashyap, arguing that the publishing house’s reaction amounted to a violation of freedom of expression.

Author and journalist Anand Ranganathan said he would return a “substantial” advance paid to him by Bloomsbury for an upcoming book. As did author Sandeep Deo, who said he would withdraw all his books from Bloomsbury. One of the authors of Delhi: The Untold Story called this “India’s Charlie Hebdo moment”.

Journalist Shekhar Gupta too condemned Bloomsbury’s decision to withdraw the book.

The book itself, meanwhile, claims to present the “untold story” behind the February riots, in which nearly 50 people lost their lives, many of whom were Muslim.

Its content suggests, according to The Indian Express, that the riots were orchestrated by “jihadis” and “urban Naxals”, had “links with the Islamic State”, and involved “professional sharpshooters”. It also claims the Shaheen Bagh protests were in some way responsible for the riots, drawing sharp outrage from those who said it was not right for an apparently factual book to present such a one-sided view of events.

Kapil Mishra’s announcement as a panellist was the last straw for many, considering that was believed to have given the Delhi police an ultimatum three days before the riots — clear the Shaheen Bagh protestors or else we won’t listen to you, he had tweeted to the police before the riots broke out in February.

The book launch, meanwhile, went ahead as planned with all panellists appearing for the event. Delhi: The Untold Story will also now be printed in both Hindi and English by publishing house Garuda Prakashan. But going by the outrage online, the debate is unlikely to die down soon.