Why Did the Authors of 'Delhi Riots 2020' Go to Bloomsbury in the First Place?

There is a desperate urge by the forces of the Right to acquire cultural capital, that too instantly.

It is surely a bit rich on the part of some authors and commentators to complain about how freedom of speech and expression are being stifled by those raising the issue of a book published by Bloomsbury. The book, Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story was withdrawn by the publisher after a hue and cry by many of its own writers who were appalled at some of the excerpts that had emerged which were full of unsubstantiated claims, including wild allegations against ‘Urban Naxals and Islamists’ and conspiracy theorists’ claims as to what caused the riots.

One of the writers of this book had legally represented the petitioners in a case where they had called for certain paragraphs from a book on Hinduism by scholar Wendy Doniger. Penguin had then chosen to withdrawn the book.

The book on the Delhi riots was to be released at a function where the guests of honour included Kapil Mishra, the AAP-turned-BJP leader, whose incendiary speech on February 23 was followed by rioting in Delhi in which 53 people, a large proportion of them Muslim, were killed. Many more lost their homes and property. (Reports of Mishra’s speech are available online; inserting the links here will merely give it more publicity.)

A poster for the book launch.

Delhi Riots 2020 follows and is based on a ‘fact-finding’ report published in June, which was handed over to Union home minister Amit Shah who accepted it in toto; it blamed, among others, ‘the tukde-tukde’ gang along with sundry other ‘radical’ groups that included, Pinjra Tod, which was started some years ago to fight against unreasonable restrictions on women in hostels and colleges. An investigation had found several discrepancies and false conclusions in the report.

Also read: Delhi Riots: ‘Fact-Finding’ Report Accepted by Amit Shah Has ‘Torrent of Misinformation’

The fact that such an outrageous book was being published by a reputed company was bad enough – Mishra’s presence at the proposed event was the last straw. Criticism of Bloomsbury followed and after claiming it was not involved in the release function, it swiftly withdrew the book. Now, it is facing another round of condemnation, this time from the book’s supporters and also, not surprisingly, from liberal-bashers, because no public debate amounts to anything without indulging in this sport.

But while this online slug fest goes on, a question is hanging in the air – why would the authors of this book want to get this book published by Bloomsbury at all?

Authors, especially first timers, do tend to want the prestige of a reputed publishing house, which gives them credibility, apart from the advantages of good, skilful editing, design and distribution, but as nationalists shouldn’t they have rejected an evil multinational company and gone to a swadeshi one. Besides, as can be seen from the excerpts that have so far been seen, not much professional editing is visible and the fact checking is truly shoddy.

Screenshot from the Bloomsbury Books India website before the book was cancelled.

Most publishing houses in India, especially the well known names with an international pedigree and legacy, are perceived as part of the liberal, secular spectrum, full of deracinated English-speaking types. This is a part of the notorious ‘Khan Market gang’, who form a closed, incestuous system which does not allow in those who have contrarian views. Sanjeev Sanyal, the Principal Economic Advisor to the government and a published writer has attacked what he calls ‘nepotism’ in the publishing industry which does not allow ‘outsiders’ in and has called for an open debate.

Introspection is always a good idea, so the industry should do it, but till things change to everyone’s satisfaction, such publishers stand condemned as being biased against not just outsiders but against all those who don’t fall within the accepted frameworks of arguments and ‘ideology’. However, a look at the authors list at Bloomsbury and other publishing houses will show this is not true at all.

Also read: Bloomsbury Book Withdrawal: William Dalrymple Becomes Focus of Right-Wing Ire

Many best selling writers like Chetan Bhagat or Amish, who have phenomenal popularity and fandom, are not particularly ‘left-liberals’; but they write cleanly and well and do not indulge in hate mongering. They go through a rigorous editing process. And they bring in huge revenue.

Delhi Riots 2020 does not meet that criteria – it makes ridiculous claims, such as, “Historically, the Left has always used Islamic fundamentalism as its striking arm.” After which follows a rant about how the Left, as a follower of the “doctrine of India as a State with multiple nations, has always shed tears for the minorities and human rights but has remained conveniently silent on practices such as instant triple talaq and halala.” A robust, critical analysis of the Indian left is definitely needed, but can anyone take this kind of writing seriously?

Remnants of motorcycles and cycle rickshaws that were set ablaze in Shiv Vihar during the riots. Photo: Seemi Pasha/The Wire

All this could have been re-edited but Bloomsbury did not. They let it go as is. Were they embarrassed at their acquisition? Or holding their noses and going through the motions, keeping in mind the revenue? Whatever the reasons, they now have egg on their faces which will have long term repercussions—the authors of the book are now said to be looking at legal options for what they say is a breach of contract. And many other authors will reconsider their position with the house.

The book is now going to be published by Garuda, whose mission is “To create a platform where stories that bring forth the perspective and narrative of the Indian civilisation can be told. For decades, nay centuries, we have been unable to speak of and advance our own narrative. We have been told our stories are not politically correct.”

It has, in the past, published the book Urban Naxals by Vivek Agnihotri, a book called Thank You India by Maria Worth, which is an “ode to India and its ancient wisdom”, a book called Modi Again, and another titled Saffron Swords about “centuries of resistance to invaders” and Indian war comics. It has announced an English and Hindi version of Delhi Riots 2020 within two weeks.

Garuda therefore would have been a perfect publisher, but still, the authors went to Bloomsbury. It’s a free country that guarantees freedom of choice, but maybe the authors felt that such an imprint would confer a status that other houses couldn’t. It would have been something to flaunt.

But this illustrates the dilemma of  those who complain about ‘left-liberal capture’ of institutions and sectors like publishing. The wider eco-system – of writers, critics, reviewers, publishing houses – has taken decades to build. These houses have a history and a legacy. Their standing comes from the kind of books they have published — that is why they are in demand.

The ‘right-wing’ (for want of a better phrase) may rail against this, but has few alternatives to offer. Over the years, it could have, but didn’t, create a parallel structure which could be an effective platform for ideas contrary to the ones they hate so much. But they didn’t and they couldn’t. The trolls may have captured social media, the ruling dispensation may have a tight grip on television channels and a few websites to project the Right’s point of view may have been established, but they remain platforms for abuse and nothing more. Constant ranting may give momentary jollies, but has its limitations and is certainly no substitute for intellectual argument. Trolling will never be able to convince anyone of a point of view, and as for the nightly shouting on television, even hardcore supporters of the ruling side don’t take it seriously.

A man sits in front of burnt out properties owned by Muslims in a riot affected area in New Delhi, March 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Credibility in this old world of ideas is what the Right wants, but has not yet got. Educational institutions of higher learning (JNU) and cultural organisations are now headed by friendly ideologues, and are being undermined, but in time they will lose all credibility internationally, unless high standards are maintained. Domestically, these institutions will produce the kind of minds that will write books that suit their own ideological proclivity that no one will take seriously.

Also read: JNU Academic Community Slams VC’s Decision to Host Retd Armyman for Saraswati Civilisation Talk

The desperate urge to acquire cultural capital, that too instantly, from the existing system will ensure that such tensions will keep arising. There will be accusations and counter-accusations. The Right may accuse its enemies of stalling other points of view and ‘stifling’ freedom of expression, but until it grasps the fundamental truth – credibility has to be earned, not bought – it will not get very far.

That credibility will come only when serious writers and thinkers emerge who can apply intellectual tools to come up with strong arguments to counter ‘leftist’ interpretations of history or society and that cannot happen overnight. This book, even it becomes a best-seller, is and will still be seen as a pamphlet, whether it is published by Bloomsbury or another publisher.