Should the publication of hate speech be protected under the right to free expression? Is a platform – a publisher, newspaper or website – obligated to carry prejudiced opinions that endanger minority communities?
These age-old questions have raised their heads again as Bloomsbury India on Saturday announced that it had withdrawn the publication of a book called Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story.
The decision was a reaction to the storm of outrage that hit the publisher on Friday as it emerged that one of the people invited to attend an event to launch the book was Kapil Mishra. Only in February, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader had delivered an ultimatum to the Delhi police to clear out people protesting against India’s new citizenship act or else his supporters would have to take action themselves. The Delhi riots started just a few hours later, with numerous instances of rioters directly – and positively – citing Mishra’s threat as their inspiration.
The invitation to Mishra to attend the event was no coincidence. The book itself seems to place the blame for the tumult on the victims of the riots – who were mostly Muslim – as well as link the violence to the peaceful sit-ins against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
None of this, of course, reflected well on Bloomsbury, a publisher of international repute. That is why it moved to hurriedly distance itself from the book. The publisher did not comment on how this book had cleared its review process. Instead, it used a technicality, claiming that the pre-publication launch was planned without its knowledge and with the “participation of parties of whom the publishers would not have approved”.
Bloomsbury’s decision sparked off a somewhat misguided discussion on freedom of speech. It bears repeating that freedom of speech does not involve forcing publishers to publish anything and everything. Publishers can – and often do – reject books. Rather than alarm at Bloomsbury rejecting the book, there should be bafflement that a book written by authors who agree with Kapil Mishra’s view on the Delhi riots passed through the publisher’s filters in the first place.
In fact, the book has already found another publisher so anyone who wants to read it can go right ahead. Given that the book agrees with not only majoritarian views of the Delhi riot but also that of the ruling dispensation, anxiety about the authors being unable to express themselves reflects a very lopsided view of how things work out in the real world.
To give the fallacy a name, this is bothsideism: drawing unthinking, false equivalences between two sides that are vastly mismatched in power. Agonising greatly about the lack of free expression for supporters of the ruling dispensation in the India of 2020 is a bit like being a men’s rights activist or claiming that members of the upper castes are subjected to the same enormous discrimination experienced by Dalits.
Elephant in the room
What is a genuine free speech issue, though, is that police in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states have arrested, attacked and, in some cases, even killed people protesting against the new citizenship act. To make it worse, the Delhi Police have tried to connect the Delhi riots to the citizenship act agitation, arguing that the protestors were conspiring to carry out violence (a narrative pushed also by the book).
Using this narrative, the police have yet again used its vast powers to arrest people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act – some of whom have now been in jail for nearly a year for nothing more than making speeches or participating in peaceful demonstrations.
In many of these instances, the police case is so flimsy, it has to resort to the use of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – a draconian law explicitly designed to criminalise speech and political thought.
That Bloomsbury decided to withdraw publication of this book is not the real problem. But given that this is happening against the backdrop of people being jailed by the state for their political views, this debate has assumed a near-surreal quality.