On August 22, Bloomsbury India announced that it would no longer be publishing a book called Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story. The book was scheduled for release in September.

In its statement, the publishing house did not comment on the contents of the book. The main sticking point was a pre-publication launch that was apparently planned without its knowledge and with the “participation of parties of whom the publishers would not have approved”. The publishing house said it supported “freedom of speech” but also had “a deep sense of responsibility towards society”.

For chief guest, the online book launch had chosen Kapil Mishra, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader accused of making an inflammatory speech a day before full-blown violence spread in North East Delhi this February. Also in attendance were the BJP member of Parliament and national general secretary Bhupendra Yadav, Nupur J Sharma, editor of the rightwing website OpIndia, and filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri. The event took place as planned even though the book was withdrawn.

As news of the event broke last week, it was greeted with outrage on social media. Bloomsbury India’s decision to withdraw publication now has given rise to fresh debate. Should the publishing house have agreed to print the book in the first place? Having decided to run with it, should it have withdrawn the book? Does this decision constitute a curb on free speech?

The book

Not much is known about the book at the centre of the storm. It claims to present the “untold story” of three days of violence that engulfed North East Delhi this February. But the story may have been told before.

Reportage by Scroll.in and other publications showed the majority of those killed or displaced were Muslim. According to reports, the new book frames the violence as a conspiracy by “urban naxals” and “jihadists” with links to the Islamic State and “professional sharpshooters”. It blames “Muslim mobs” for violence in “key areas”. It links them to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Milia Islamia University at the other end of the city.

This closely resembles a “fact-finding report” on the violence published in March by the all-women the Group of Intellectuals and Academicians. It claims to piece together evidence of a “Left-Jihadi model of revolution” and blames the “radicalisation of Muslims” for the violence.

The three authors of the new book – Sonali Chitalkar, who teaches political science at Delhi University’s Miranda College, Prerna Malhotra, who teaches English at Ram Lal Anand College, and advocate Monika Arora – were part of the fact-finding team. The Group of Intellectuals and Academicians claims to work on “Indian nationalism” and the welfare of Hindus.

Chitalkar and Arora were part of another fact-finding team two years ago. Their brief: to investigate the murder and alleged rape of a Muslim girl in Jammu’s Kathua district. The accused were Hindu, which had given rise to a storm of communally charged rhetoric. The team’s report supported the claim of Hindu rightwing groups that the accused had been wrongly charged.

The publishers

It is not yet clear how much editorial attention the book received at Bloomsbury India, whether it was fact checked or put through the scanner for potential hate speech. It is also not clear whether the book was commissioned by the publishers or a “vanity project” of the authors which found a home at Bloomsbury India. Even if the publishers had not been aware of the launch, it must have been aware of the contents of the book.

An email written by the authors to Bloomsbury India after the withdrawal was announced had this to say:

“You Bloomsbury have over the past 3 months communicated with us through e-mails, SMS, Whatsapp all of which are in our possession. You Bloomsbury finalized the draft of the aforesaid book. Authors and you the publisher mutually suggested many changes and all were incorporated in the final draft which the authors finalized and as a publisher you approved.”

A British publishing house that has expanded to other countries, Bloomsbury is popularly known for the Harry Potter books. But it has also published literary stars such as Michael Ondaatje, Kamila Shamsie and George Saunders as well as several academic titles. Recently, it published author William Dalrymple’s new book, The Anarchy.

Bloomsbury India seems to have favoured titles generated by the political buzz of the moment. In the recent past, it has published other titles by authors or themes identified with the Hindu Right – filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri on the death of former Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and a book on the “Indic quotient”. It has also published a book of essays on Shaheen Bagh, describing how the protests against the Citizenship Amendement Act turned into a movement holding up constitutional principles and a secular idea of India.

The outrage

In any case, the 190-page book on the Delhi violence had barely raised an eyebrow until Friday, when the details of the launch became public. Mishra, after all, was the leader who gave the Delhi Police an ultimatum the day before the violence began – clear the protests in three days or else “we won’t listen to you”. The same man was now presiding over the launch of the first book on the February violence – this was the main cause of the outrage.

But the outrage that was triggered by the event eventually led to questions about the decision to publish the book in the first place. Some declared they would boycott the publishers. But there were few on social media who asked for the book to be banned or withdrawn from publication.

The withdrawal

Bloomsbury India took that decision of its own accord. Perhaps it was stung by criticism on social media. Perhaps the parent company worried about losing major authors should it be seen to be endorsing the narratives of the Hindu Right. Some social media users, after all, had equated Mishra’s presence at the launch with inviting “neo-nazis” and “white supremacists”.

The email written by the authors claims they were given no reason for the withdrawal apart from the fact that the launch did not have the imprimatur of the publishers. The authors said they have now sent a legal notice to Bloomsbury India.

Now, the publishing house faces the wrath of authors who claim it caved to the “cancel culture” of “LeftLiberal activists and Islamists”. Such authors have vowed to sever ties with Bloomsbury India. They include Sanjay Dixit, author of Nullifying Article 370 and Enacting CAA, and Nityanand Misra, who was ready with a new book on “beautiful Sanskrit names”.

Much of this anger is focused on authors like William Dalrymple, who is credited with influencing the publishers to withdraw the book.

The free speech question

In social media battles, this turned into a question of free speech, with the debate divided along familiar political faultlines.

Many identified with the Left welcomed Bloomsbury India’s move to “smash Hindutva fascism”. According to the Right, the Left Liberal elites who still exercise enormous influence on intellectual and literary worlds are the real “fascists” who crack down on opinions different from their own. Finer contestations arose between the Left and that vaguely defined category of individuals known as “Liberals”, who may have deplored the book but worried about what this meant for free speech.

Those defending Bloomsbury India’s action have noted that the book may have been withdrawn by one publisher but not banned by the state or the court. The authors have already found another publisher in Garuda Prakashan, which promises to print the book in both English and Hindi.

Those opposing it point out that publishers have buckled under public pressure before, which was seen as a threat to the freedom of speech. Many recall the the furore over Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, which Penguin withdrew from publication after pressure from Hindu Rightwing groups.

The campaign against the book, however, included active demands for a ban and court cases to secure it. Incidentally, Arora, one of the three authors of the book on the Delhi violence, had then represented Dinanath Batra and the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which fought a legal battle against Doniger’s book.