Over the last two weeks, as the #MeToo movement has crashed through India, several prominent names from India’s literary world have been accused of sexual harassment. Among those against whom allegations have been made are Chetan Bhagat and Kiran Nagarkar, poet and journalist CP Surendran and public relations consultant Suhel Seth, a fixture at literature festivals.

Betraying a long tradition of complicity through silence, the allegations have raised thorny issues about the responsibility of publishers and organisers of literature festivals to not only provide a safe working environment for employees but also deny platforms to personalities accused of harassment.

Over the past few days, a petition asking the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival to disinvite those credibly named in #MeToo allegations has already gathered over 500 signatures while the Bangalore Literature Festival had to clarify that Bhagat would not be a speaker at the event at the end of the month. Uncharacteristically, his new book has not been accompanied by the frenzied publicity that heralds a Bhagat bestseller-in-the-making.

‘Needless controversies’

The publisher of Bhagat’s book would not confirm whether the low-key launch was the result of allegations made against the author by three women. The Girl in Room 105 is the first of a multi-crore, six-book deal with Amazon that was announced earlier this year. Scroll.in asked Amazon if there would be any changes to the deal and publication schedule; if publicity events for the new book are on hold for now; and if the publisher has a policy for cases where authors are accused of sexual misconduct. “We don’t have any official comment to offer, unfortunately,” Amazon officials replied. “Chetan has spoken at length about this on his social channels. I am sure you have seen it. The book is available for customers on Amazon.in.”

But in a Facebook post on October 10, the day after the book hit the market, Bhagat expressed dismay that the “needless controversies” were preventing him from promoting The Girl in Room 105. “For the first time ever, I didn’t even thank my readers on the launch day,” he wrote.

All public appearances by the author seemed to be on hold since these allegations emerged, until reports surfaced that Bhagat would make an appearance at the Bangalore Literature Festival, scheduled for October 27 and October 28. A few days later, though, it was reported that he would not participate in the festival.

Organisers of the Bangalore Literature Festival deny that Bhagat was dropped, saying he had never confirmed his participation in the first place. “There was doubt over his schedule from the outset, and therefore no formal invite was ever sent,” Subodh Sankar, co-founder of the Atta Galatta bookstore, which is a partner on the literature festival, told Scroll.in. “All of this predates the recent revelations of his behaviour.” Sankar clarified that the festival would “not provide a platform to, and thus legitimise, any person credibly accused of sexual misconduct of any kind”.

PR consultant Suhel Seth at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2016.
PR consultant Suhel Seth at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2016.

It was an important declaration. Popular literary events and festivals – which are thronged by a giddy mix of authors, editors, publicists, journalists and hordes of enthusiastic readers – can be vulnerable spaces particularly for those who do not occupy powerful spots in the literary and publishing hierarchy. Besides, they serve as opportunities for authors to consolidate their reputations and popularity. Some incidents of harassment involving authors that have come to light have taken place at literary events. Some of the figures against whom allegations have been made are regulars on the circuit, most prominently at the “greatest literary show on earth” – the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Alarmed by the incidents reported over the past few days, writer and editor Rajni George started a petition on October 16 asking the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival to take a firm position by supporting #MeToo and to issue a statement declaring zero tolerance of sexual harassment. “As India’s largest and most recognised literature festival, we believe JLF is ideally placed to take the lead in addressing this urgent issue,” the petition stated.

The petition has been signed by over 500 people including writers Jeet Thayil, Nilanjana Roy, Gurcharan Das, Salil Tripathi, Meena Kandasamy and Ashok Banker, lawyer Karuna Nundy and actors Sonam Kapoor and Lisa Ray.

“Litfests bring so many different people together – a lot of powerful people are suddenly close to people who want to be near that power,” George told Scroll.in. Apart from holding the organisers accountable to ensure that “those who have been credibly named are not invited to attend”, the petition also asks that there should be a forum for redressal for any complaints that arise at the festival.

Two days later, the festival posted a short statement that it “unequivocally stands by the women who have courageously spoken out for equity and dignity and is committed to supporting and amplifying their voices”.

When Scroll.in asked the festival organisers if they have taken cognisance of the accusations and whether those accused of harassment would be invited to the festival, they responded: “We continue to be attentive and sensitive to these concerns, which are reflected in our programming. The programming reflects our passionate belief in equity and dignity for all and has always had a special focus on women’s issues. The Festival does not condone gender discrimination, exploitation or sexual harassment by anyone associated with it.”

The organisers also asserted that “guidelines are already in place” at Teamwork Arts, the producers of the festival, for redressal in case of complaints of sexual harassment. “Teamwork Arts has a stringent redressal system set up as per the law,” they said. “This has been in operation for the last few years both within the company and at the Festival.”

What about the publishers?

Questions are also being asked about publishers, who could grant legitimacy to tainted authors.

Ravi Singh, the co-founder and publisher of Speaking Tiger, said he would think hard about publishing authors who have been named in recent #MeToo accusations. “If the allegations are serious and appear credible, we’ll certainly put the project on hold until there’s been an investigation,” he said.

Last year, Speaking Tiger published a collection of poetry by CP Surendran, who has been accused of harassment by 11 women in the last two weeks. Singh said that allegations against writers is something his company always considered before entering into contracts. “Every publisher will have to act ethically and responsibly,” he said. “But if they don’t, what price do they pay for it? How many star authors take a stand and refuse to publish with such companies?”

Thomas Abraham, Managing Director of Hachette India agreed that it has always been necessary to consider allegations before signing up writers but it’s a “vexed and nuanced question with no simple blanket answer”.

“I’ve discussed this with our publishers of each Division (Adult books and Children’s books), and we’re agreed it is something that has to be considered case by case, rather than just with a sweeping judgement,” he said. Raising further questions of potential legal mechanisms he asked: “While an author and publisher have a contractual work relationship, is an author’s legal position for instance the same as a workplace relationship and therefore can it be governed by the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, when it is not the publisher’s employees who are bringing the charges?”

Besides, he said that “any policy would have to be fair, as a large part of publishing is about freedom of speech”.

Arpita Das of Yoda Press, for her part, admitted to being conflicted about publishing a book in 2016 by Mahmood Farooqui, who was acquitted of rape in a heavily-criticised judgment by the Delhi High Court in 2017. The manuscript came to Das before he had been accused, she said, but the book was published when the case was under trial (Farooqui was convicted by a trial court before the subsequent acquittal). “I still stand by that magnificent book,” she said, “but I would like to say that I would have the strength to say no today, even if it it is literature that I am blown away by. This is a conundrum that one faces as a serious feminist and publisher.”

At the heart of what afflicts English language publishing in India is its small size and lop-sided structure – with a handful of behemoths and a number of smaller, independent presses. With much of the literary conversation controlled by the former (and the authors they’re friends with), along with the festivals that work in partnership with them, many smaller players in this world find if difficult to speak out against unethical behaviour. It could also explain why most allegations of sexual harassment in the literary world have been by journalists or other writers, instead of publishing employees. “MeToo has been quiet in publishing,” Rajni George said. “Yes, it is woman-dominated editorially. But there are also only so many places you can work at, and there is fear of a fallout if you speak.”

Das said that the publishing industry in India is anything but united. “We’re probably one of the least progressive publishing industries – very non-diverse in caste and class and made up of entitled, privileged bastions of men and women,” she said. “We need to see ourselves as part of the problem.”

This is how the authors mentioned in this piece have responded to the allegations against them.

Chetan Bhagat has responded on Facebook and Twitter to two allegations against him. He described them as “baseless” and “fake, motivated attacks”. He has not responded to a request for comment on a third allegation by a journalist who said he insisted on knowing what she looked like during a phone interview and repeatedly refused to answer the journalists’s final questions until she sent him a photo of herself. This article will be updated if he responds.

Kiran Nagarkar posted a statement on Twitter on October 11 about the allegations against him, in which he said “I unequivocally deny these allegations of sexual impropriety which go against the heart of my character and everything I stand for.” It can be read in full here.

CP Surendran responded to a request for comment on the multiple allegations against him with a statement. “I have never meant to give grief. I have not made obscene comments or gestures...This is the lynch mob at work.” he said. His full response and the allegations against him can be read here.

Suhel Seth has not responded to a request for comment on the allegations against him. If a response is received, it will be included in this article.