When my book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969, was published and released by Orient BlackSwan in mid-April this year, I scarcely anticipated the controversy it would generate. The controversy has given me cause to reflect on some of the worrying implications this affair could have for the future of Indian history writing.
The book, the first of its kind, interrogates Ahmedabad’s history over a period spanning five decades, specifically examining the infliction and avoidance of sexual violence against Muslim (and in one case Hindu) women in three major episodes of Hindu-Muslim rioting the city witnessed, in 1969, 1985 and 2002. The book was published, released and sold by Orient BlackSwan in mid-April, but since then it has been withheld from sale.
Although no objection has been raised against my book by anyone, the publisher voluntarily subjected my book, possibly even others, to a fresh review for fear of legal or violent reprisals by the Hindu right. Pending the outcome of this review, my book has been withdrawn from the market, even though it had been rigorously peer-reviewed and copy-edited, as per the standard practice of academic publishers, for possible legal issues and quality-control purposes before publication. The ostensible reason Orient Blackswan has given is that, on April 14, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, served a legal notice to one of Orient BlackSwan’s older textbooks.
Orient BlackSwan’s capitulation to the SBAS has rightly outraged those who prize freedom of expression and free scholarly enquiry, and who expect the state to safeguard and, where necessary, defend these fundamental democratic rights without favour or equivocation. Particularly striking for all of us concerned is the publisher’s pusillanimity with regard to my book, and its voluntary surrender of its right to protest and contest real and perceived intimidation.
After four years of contesting the SBAS’s lawsuit against Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, Penguin opted for an out of court settlement in February 2014, handing a major victory to an outfit devoted to blocking scholarly writing that conflicts with its skewed worldview. In Doniger’s assessment, “the book might not have been liable under any extant law. Penguin was badly advised by its lawyers”. However, in withdrawing my book, Orient BlackSwan has gone a step further: in an act of pre-emptive self-censorship it has effectively capitulated to the SBAS before any objection to my book has actually been raised.