Understanding the Context
This September, Bloomsbury India was set to publish Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, a book which claims to be a factual account of events that unfolded during the violent riots in North East Delhi earlier this year. Co-authored by advocate Monika Arora and Delhi University professors Prerna Malhotra and Sonali Chitalkar, it was slated to be published until backlash erupted on Twitter condemning the publisher’s association with a virtual launch of the book wherein BJP politician Kapil Mishra was invited as the guest of honour. Mishra is alleged to have delivered incendiary speeches which sparked widespread chaos during the anti-CAA protests, causing communal clashes and the loss of over 50 lives.
How Jehadi-Naxal lobby planned & executed
‘Delhi Riots-The Untold Story’
Book launch on 22 Aug at 4 pm by @byadavbjp @vivekagnihotri @UnSubtleDesi @KapilMishra_IND @DrPrernaMalhotr @sonalimiranda
Do come pic.twitter.com/rV0NABSi9W
— Monika Arora (@advmonikaarora) August 20, 2020
Activists and journalists were incensed by what they perceived to be a politically motivated attempt to incorrectly present the riots as a conspiracy executed by “urban naxal and jihadi elements”. Several Indian (and foreign) authors threatened to #BoycottBloomsbury if they went ahead with the book, citing that its contents contravened reports by the Delhi Minorities Commission and Amnesty International which found Muslims to be the worst affected victims of the violence. After a day of relentless social media ire, Bloomsbury India announced its decision to withdraw from publishing the book. This was seen as a ‘win’ amongst many sections of the internet — one that exhibited the power of responsible collective dissent.
On the other hand, Bloomsbury India’s withdrawal has caused many to accuse the publisher of censorship and of succumbing to pressure from what one of the authors termed as “liberal fascists”. The book has since been picked up by Garuda Prakashan, an Indian publishing house.
Inside the LW mind:
We cry fascism but even then we should be scared of a book.
Ques: When you believe in #FOE who gave you the mandate to decide which book deserves respect and which not?
— Bhupender Yadav (@byadavbjp) August 23, 2020
Dialogue is non-negotiable in a democratic society, but it would be impossible without the ability to exchange ideas freely and responsibly. Is the fact that the publisher changed its course of action an indictment of free speech and another instance of a ‘cancel culture’, or could it be a testament to the benefits of a citizenry healthily exercising their freedom to dissent peacefully? Anish and Kanmani weigh in on either side of this debate to evaluate what is at stake for the future of progressive politics, free speech and intellectual growth in our society.
Click on a quote to read the opinion
“…while we can easily debate the extended hypocrisies and fallacies of using terms like ‘liberal fascism’ or ‘cancel culture’, the reality is that what [the authors] believe to be the ‘untold story’ is actually the popular narrative that has been fed to and believed by the majority in India today.”
– Kanmani Palanisamy
“…such cancel-culture concerns itself more with curbing opinions that its proponents disagree with rather than fulfilling any sort of social responsibility… [this] results in a net loss for free speech and discourse on the whole while being inconsistent and selective in its outrage.”
– Anish Anandaram
Fascism — a concept with several popularly recognised definitions — has been doing the rounds in Indian political discourse, more so since 2014. More recently, certain mainstream media houses and vocal supporters of the “untold stories” from the 2020 Delhi riots have chanced upon a less-popular appropriation of the word: “Liberal Fascism”.
The phrase gained popularity in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning published in 2008 by the conservative author Jonah Goldberg. Historians disagreed with the easy deployment of such a phrase; as Robert Paxman, a renowned scholar of fascism noted, fascism is quite simply “dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm”. Liberalism in its true essence does not espouse the ideals of a racially pure nation that demanded the systematic cleansing of ‘impure’ elements. Fascism, led by the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, led that ideological charge alone.
But, Indian media houses and personalities are an exception to this critique: they continue to use the term, especially so while describing the outrage that led to the withdrawal of Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story on the 22nd of August. However, whether this usage is justified remains highly suspect.
The spectre of ‘cancel culture’ now looms over #India . The mob that forced the cancellation of ‘Delhi Riots 2020’ is no different from the Nazi mob that burned books. The publisher is the collaborator. Name, shame and shun @BloomsburyIndia
Signs of Fascism? This IS Fascism. pic.twitter.com/Iel4tO8oav
— Kanchan Gupta (@KanchanGupta) August 22, 2020
The terms used by specific commentators to condemn Bloomsbury’s decision to withdraw publishing the book (among many others) included “ban” and “censorship”. The word censorship signifies the power to censor information, which is usually exercised by the State, courts of law or private institutions.
Do critics of Bloomsbury India’s decision really believe that the publisher enjoys a similar authority over the general public? Was there any intimidation which stifled free speech in such a manner that it warrants the claim of ‘censorship’?
Well, for starters, Bloomsbury does not hold a monopoly over the Indian publishing sector. There is no evidence suggesting that upon withdrawing the title, Bloomsbury urged other publishing houses to refrain from publishing the book.
#DelhiRiotsUntoldStory is breaking records. People are asking us the number.
As of now , we have about 30000 bookings on website, web forms, emails, phones, whatsapp (some payments are pending)
— Garuda (@GarudaPrakashan) August 30, 2020
Given the information we have, all we can gather is that Bloomsbury India — in its capacity as a private entity — chose to withdraw its name as the publisher of the book citing their own reasoning.
Perhaps it may be argued that Bloomsbury was under pressure from more powerful authors on its list; public commentators like Vivek Agnihotri have implied that the likes of historian William Dalrymple may have instigated the company’s UK headquarters to intervene in making the decision of withdrawal.
However, assuming this to be an instance of coercion is a fallacy and one that fails to take into account the subsequent threats made by more stringent advocates of freedom of expression. After Bloomsbury withdrew Delhi Riots 2020, several Indian authors threatened to withdraw their titles from Bloomsbury. This could also be considered tantamount to coercion too, in that it should have forced Bloomsbury to retract its decision.
Interestingly, this whole business of ‘critiquing’ coercion raises an age-old irony that one of the book’s authors, Delhi-based lawyer Monika Arora, would perhaps rather forget right now. As an ardent truth seeker that she claims to be, she had been part of a prolonged legal battle to ensure that ‘factually inaccurate’ passages were removed from Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, published in 2011. The book suffered a worse fate of having its copies withdrawn by the publisher, thereby suffering the true fate of censorship. One wonders whether Ms Arora recognises her double standards in enhancing the freedom of speech and expression.
However, in the case of the Delhi riots book, Garuda Prakashan picked up the manuscript on the 23rd of August, just one day after Bloomsbury India withdrew the title.
Announcement: I have terminated my contract with @BloomsburyIndia for my due to be released book ‘Nullifying Article 370 and Enacting CAA’ (20.09.2020 release), and assigned it to @GarudaPrakashan – please do not place pre-orders on the @BloomsburyBooks title now.
— Sanjay Dixit ಸಂಜಯ್ ದೀಕ್ಷಿತ್ संजय दीक्षित (@Sanjay_Dixit) August 23, 2020
One also wonders why there are no tweets from the ‘repressed community’ or the authors themselves about the legal consequences that Bloomsbury would suffer on account of withdrawing the contract to publish. Ms Arora, a notable legal figure in her own right, could have sued Bloomsbury in the courts of law. Here, the only reasonable legal action could be if Bloomsbury had breached a contract, a situation that the current debate and backlash does not seem to allude to.
It is now clear that there was no ‘ban’, state coercion or censorship of the book. No legal provisions were invoked. The ‘fascist elements’ of the liberal-left in the Bloomsbury India fracas seem to be missing.
Our freedom of speech and expression includes the freedom to be able to criticise works and allow for such criticism to enter public discourse. Insofar as such speech is not produced with force, coercion or state authority, it cannot be condemned as fascist or ‘cancel culture’.
TW of every kind, but essential reading to counter police fiction: the Delhi Minorities Commission fact-finding report on the riots. Police were complicit, abetted attacks, engaged in direct violence, perpetrated VAW, escorted mobs to safety. https://t.co/xKcwPJY5ee
— Aruna Chandrasekhar (@aruna_sekhar) July 19, 2020
Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story promises to give answers to questions that ‘ill-equipped’ and ‘urban-terrorist organisations’ such as Amnesty International or the Delhi Minorities Commission failed to arrive at. It is with much anticipation that I wait to read how the ‘untold’ findings of the riots in North East Delhi were arrived at, and what ‘shocking’ revelations have been made. From what is available online, the book seems to explain how a ‘jihadist’ plot backfired and ended up killing more of their own ‘Muslim brethren’ instead of the ‘actual’ targeted community.
And so, while we can easily debate the extended hypocrisies and fallacies of using terms like ‘liberal fascism’ or ‘cancel culture’, the reality is that what the authors believe to be the “untold story” is actually the popular narrative that has been fed to and believed by the majority in India today. The story of the innocent who lost their lives and homes still lay in the dark, waiting to see the light of justice.
It is safe to presume that a publishing house of Bloomsbury India’s size and stature invested the requisite time and effort to ensure that any content published under their banner was palatable to the general public. Having raked in more than $150 million in 2018, one could even say they are a behemoth in the publishing industry. So why the sudden change in heart?
Bloomsbury India’s decision to withdraw publishing Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story is another example of the growing spectre of cancel culture. What is of greater concern is that such a culture is gravely adverse for free speech as well as intellectual discourse on the whole.
At the offset, let us be clear that the publisher’s decision to drop the book had absolutely nothing to do with the contents in it.
Following the Twitter blitzkrieg that it endured from a host of authors, activists and journalists alike, Bloomsbury India swiftly announced that it was withdrawing its publication of the book, citing the authors’ hosting “parties of whom the Publishers would not have approved” as the official reason. They further stated that while they supported the freedom of speech, they also had a “deep sense of responsibility toward society”.
Those who were initially outraged, now rejoiced at Bloomsbury’s U-turn. They saw this as a victory since the book threatened to portray the riots through a politically-motivated lens.
Selecting the Freedom to Express
The fact that Rana Ayyub’s book Gujarat Files: The Anatomy of A Cover-Up was used as evidence in the murder case of the former home minister of Gujarat — despite the Supreme Court of India ruling that the book “has no evidentiary value” and was potentially politically motivated — is sufficient proof that any form of writing or speech being politically motivated does not deem it fit for withdrawal. This is especially so in a free and fair country like India.
Now, when examining this issue as yet another example of ‘cancel-culture’, we need to acknowledge that the problem lies not with Bloomsbury India for having caved in to online pressure, but rather, the culture which forced Bloomsbury’s hand. After all, private companies are monetarily driven by the motivation to avoid consumer outcry; this is even more so in the publishing business.
Ask yourself this: has such consumer outcry been consistent across the board? And, what are its implications on free speech and intellectual discourse?
If evidence suggests that this consumer outcry is being applied selectively — as opposed to consistently — to cases of a similar nature, then the goal of the outraged activists is not to enforce any sense of social responsibility. Instead, the outrage can be conceived to be a tool for curbing viewpoints, opinions or ideologies that they do not agree with.
Let’s go through three examples that will make this distinction more apparent.
One Man’s Freedom is Another Man’s Oppression?
The first example goes back only a few months, when James Bennet, a senior editor at the New York Times, was forced to resign for running an op-ed titled “Send In the Troops”. It was written by a Republican Senator in response to the civil unrest in America that rose after George Floyd was brutally murdered at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.
The George Floyd incident was atrocious and the anger among large swathes of the American populace is certainly justified. But, an unfortunate consequence of this unrest was that businesses were looted and public property was vandalized. These are both serious crimes under American law.
Depriving business-owners (many of whom were from minority communities themselves) of their livelihoods because of residual anger at the State is unjustified, regardless of the language with which protests are spun. With more than 250 businesses burned down (of which more than thirty were black-owned) in Minneapolis alone, “Send In the Troops” was an op-ed based on the notion that the military may be the last resort to bring some semblance of tranquillity back to American cities.
Protestors and activists alike called for Bennet’s resignation and shamed the Times for allowing such a piece to see the light of day. This was predicated on the notion that the author’s words would have adverse implications for minority communities.
People say that consistency is key. Outrage ought to play by the same rules.
More often than not, such cancel-culture concerns itself more with curbing opinions that its proponents disagree with rather than fulfilling any sort of social responsibility towards society’s most vulnerable communities.
We understand that many readers find Senator Cotton’s argument painful, even dangerous. We believe that is one reason it requires public scrutiny and debate.
— James Bennet (@JBennet) June 3, 2020
Following the chaos and his subsequent resignation, Bennet himself argued in an essay that “debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.”
Any opposition to such speech bears the burden of proving that allowing ideas to go unchallenged or ‘cancelling’ contrarian beliefs is more likely to help society reach the right answers than what can come from debating them on the face of their intellectual merits.
This ‘cancel culture’ is no monolith. In many cases, it arises when an “established” narrative is being challenged.
The second example elucidates this. It involves Mr Jason Riley, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think-tank. Mr Riley, an African-American himself, is the author of the book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed.
In May 2016, his invitation to speak at Virginia Tech was rescinded, owing to the fear of protests regarding the comments made in his book.
Silencing an African-American author from engaging with a largely-white student body is not only harmful to free dialogue but also to the conversation surrounding race relations, which is the depressingly ironic consequence of selective outrage.
The third example involves Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born American commentator who was a victim of female genital mutilation. As such, she has been an outspoken critic of traditional Islamic practices and their implications on women.
Brandeis University rescinded their invitation to Ali to speak at the University’s Commencement Ceremony (an event where any sort of conversation on Islam would be extremely unlikely) once her earlier comments on Islam were made public. They deemed Ali’s take to be inconsistent with the University’s values.
Her response to the incident captures the perils that cancel culture present to intellectual growth: “Neither Brandeis nor my critics know or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced”.
To address the politicization of our expert class, we need a complete reformation of the system that feeds it—the universities. That entails a radical overhaul of campus culture, including the elimination of safe spaces, trigger warnings, speaker boycott.
— Ayaan Hirsi Ali (@Ayaan) July 28, 2020
Cancelling a speech that was to be delivered to a predominantly white student body by a Somali-born activist is detrimental to any candid conversation about women who are routinely subjected to such harrowing practices in many countries across the world.
The Double-Edged Sword
Opting for a voice to be silenced instead of engaged with is perhaps the most alarming indictment of cancel-culture, especially because it pertains to free speech.
Any silencing of free thought bears the onus of proving that it is in the interest of free speech and a more socially conscientious society. More than anything else, it has the onus of ensuring that such silencing is consistently applied across the board in the interest of furthering intellectual engagement on the whole. A failure to discharge this obligation would deem the said outrage null and void.
The three global examples were to reinstate that I do not intend on harping on any particular section of thinkers and activists. Rather, they intended to illustrate how cancel culture results in a net loss for free speech and discourse on the whole while being inconsistent and selective in its outrage.
The incident involving Bloomsbury India and Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story is no different.