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Bloomsbury saga is a battle of platforms, driven by an ecosystem, powered by ideologies

Author: Gautam Chikermane
Publication: ORF Online.org
Date:  August 24, 2020
URL:      https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/bloomsbury-saga-battle-platforms-driven-ecosystem-powered-ideologies/

Preserving free speech should be the gut reaction of anyone in the business of ideas — authors, academics, journalists. There is no space for selectivity here.

Amid all the outrage around Bloomsbury withdrawing a book, one thing is clear: false liberalism and those propagating the same will be called out. Bloomsbury and the consequent reactions to it by those who have trapped themselves in a box called ‘liberals’ and packaged themselves as the woke redeemers of India will find that finally the product has to work, mere advertising-boxes won’t.

False liberals are traveling in a ship of history that’s taking them to time-geographies of France (Voltaire is not the sole truth-dictum anymore) or Italy (labelling someone as ‘fascist’ doesn’t make them so, supporting the withdrawal does). That ship is sailing away from the soul of India, Sanatana Dharma. In containers of various shapes and sizes, occupied by interests and hierarchy of entitlements, lies an anti-thesis of the reviving body of India’s nationalism. And it is carting these containers of sliver-ideologies away from the vast, puissant and deep intellectual traditions of India, which the false liberals condemn without knowing or even wanting to know and prevent their publication. Such a ship can’t port in India anymore — not because of any legal or regulatory pressure but simply because India has moved on.

Bloomsbury withdrawing Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra has left the reading fraternity aghast. New voices and faces, literary rebels who have become authors on the grit of their persistence and the power of their ideas, are questioning the publishers’ cabal and putting the spotlight on their contradictions — authors Amish Tripathi, Monika Halan and David Frawley, bureaucrats Sanjay Dixit and Sanjeev Sanyal, scientist Anand Ranganathan, historian Vikram Sampath.

Preserving free speech should be the gut reaction of anyone in the business of ideas — authors, academics, journalists. There is no space for selectivity here. And yet, it is sad to see that in this day and age there are still people who support Bloomsbury’s withdrawal without reading the book (it has not yet been published). For those who came in late, the withdrawal is because a pre-publication launch had the participation of “parties of whom the Publishers would not have approved.” The only principle that stands is let all books be published, read the ones you like, critique those you don’t, and if pushed write another book. But banning books technically (only the State can do that) or creating an effective ban on them is to be opposed without question or clauses. The Bloomsbury withdrawal, therefore, needs to be seen in a larger context of a three-pronged war.

One: Battle of platforms

As a publishing house that has a fairly large footprint in India, Bloomsbury releases books of all kinds. To that extent, like others in the business such as Penguin Random House or Harper Collins, Gita Press or Garuda Prakashan (which is now publishing the book), it is a platform where diverse views from various authors come together and fight for shelf space. Once a manuscript clears the hurdle, and the publisher decides to convert it into a book, the textual discussions are over. To deplatform authors and their book because the publisher disapproves the participation of a person at its launch is clearly a liberal fig leaf pretending to take a moral high. Bloomsbury withdrawing the book will be contested by the authors.

But what’s worse, even the critique of this deplatforming is functioning without any first principles, technical or moral. When the support for free speech is selective, then we need to question that support. This critique by Rama Lakshmi, the Opinions Editor of ThePrint.in, is a case in point. It is difficult to figure out whether Lakshmi is critiquing the withdrawal or using it to push a line. From labelling Arora as an “RSS-sympathetic lawyer” to selectivity (“it was easier to defend Salman Rushdie than Monika Arora”), what started out as a condemnation of the “deplatforming” in a few paragraphs was garnished with the predictable “Hindu fundamentalist.” The writer then speculates that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah the book will not disappear, implying that it would certainly have disappeared under the previous regime. She fears that the book will become larger than life “which it most probably doesn’t deserve.” Such is the level of intellectual entitlement.

Two: driven by the ecosystem

It is not yet clear why Bloomsbury decided to deplatform the book, after having cleared it at the editorial stage. Fingers of suspicion are being pointed at one of the most powerful men in publishing ecosystem, William Dalrymple. To be fair, Dalrymple has not responded to the gratitude expressed by Aatish Taseer for having put “a stop to this shameful bit of state propaganda. It could not have happened without him.” While the public waits for Dalrymple’s confirmation or denial, the words of those thrusting their alien points of view on defining the idea of India show that there is an ecosystem working, almost like a battalion, to ensure there is no intrusion of any idea that doesn’t conform to theirs. Without realising how regressive they sound — and are — these worthies hold forth on free speech in one room and celebrate its censorship in the next.

What should be a straight battle is between the publisher and the authors has become a war between the authors and these boorish literary clubs, ecosystems that cannot tolerate any alternative view. Given the outrage so far and the actions that will follow, with existing and future authors eschewing Bloomsbury, the publishing house will become less a platform, more an easily bullied echo chamber. It will set a new low in publishing standards. It will serve a sublime example of what can happen to other platforms if they don’t heed to this ecosystem and toe the line. This is covert censorship, without the State entering the picture. The ecosystem wins, the platforms lose; and the more the platforms yield, the more irrelevant they will become. According to Garuda Prakashan’s founder Sankrant Sanu, the book has already presold 15,000 copies in less than 24 hours.

Three: The power of ideologies

As long as this battle remains between two entities, publishers and authors, it is par for the course. But stepping back, if Bloomsbury is a platform and punctures certain voices due to the pressure from the ecosystem it operates in which in turn is trapped in an ideological frame, it becomes an issue that needs debate. One participant in that debate will be politics. For instance, in the US, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are under pressure to ensure free speech. In a 28 May 2020 Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, US President Donald Trump, while supporting debate on such platforms has brought the issue of “selective censorship that is harming our national discourse” and has questioned the use of “good faith” clause by these platforms.

A Left-led ideological discourse has been dominating India’s ideas market for the past several decades, and this will take time to change. Huge stakes in creating anti-India and anti-Hindu discourse have created a rich ecosystem that thrives on self-adulation, incestuous support and the review-publicity industry by stamping on all ideas outside their frame. The epicenter of this industry has been Lutyens Delhi — authors and readers both belong there. This ideological dominance is ending. And it is not a new government that is changing it; it is a new politics that has brought in a government in tune with what it aspires for. The cabal can continue to blame Modi or Shah, even as citizens seek out and express the new India with new ideas.

Free speech is finally free

The heart of this aspiration beats for a rejuvenated India. The accompanying market dynamic will power this. There is very little left for the Left discourse anymore. It will stay, of course, and it must — if only to remind us of what not to do, where not to go, apart from the fact that no idea should be smothered. But this ideology, this ecosystem and their narrowing platforms will get sidelined. Their monopoly will be institutionally challenged. As will actions that are selective. Perverse justifications to deplatform “their” books will be called out. Technology its liberator, free speech is freeing itself from the clutches of those who recited it as a chant but subjugate it in various ways. The ecosystem, the ideologues and the platforms will need to adapt with this change.

Over the past seven decades, India’s politics had ceded intellectual space to the Left. The Left, in turn, has twisted every truth to fit a narrative. Preserving this narrative — of an India that was nothing, had nothing, thought nothing, did nothing; a nation of cowards, of selfish kings; India as a country whose religion was backward, whose knowledge systems didn’t exist until invaders introduced them to new faiths; Hindus as fundamentalists, everyone else martyrs and victims; India a scattered geography united by serial conquerors, a poor and abject nation until it was civilised by the West — has gone unquestioned. Controlled by a small cabal, powered by political dynasty that ‘ruled’ but didn’t ‘govern’, the Bloomsbury saga tells us that its use-by date is here. Yesterday’s ideologies, ecosystems and platforms will not drive tomorrow’s India.

* The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

 

 
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