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Is big publishing abandoning the fight for free expression?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Monday, 17 February 2014 - 11:30pm IST | Agency: dna

Advocate Lawrence Liang has served a legal notice to Penguin Books, India, on behalf of Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarti Sethi. In this interview with Monobina Gupta, Sethi and Sengupta share their views on Penguin’s decision to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book on The Hindus: An Alternative History

You have petitioned the courts against Penguin’s decision to withdraw and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book. Why did a huge organisation like Penguin yield to Dinanath Batra’s arm-twisting? What does such inexplicable capitulation tell us about large publishing houses?
Quite frankly we find this decision mystifying given that Penguin has had a very good track record on defending freedom of expression. Internationally, Penguin Books has not caved in to threats against the publication of The Satanic Verses, and if they can stand by The Satanic Verses and Salman Rushdie (as they should) we do not understand why they should not uphold the right of readers to read Wendy Doniger. Further, The Satanic Verses was proscribed by the Indian state, not pulped by Penguin books. So in that case we could sympathize with the publisher, which was as much a victim of a State imposed gag as the reader. But in this case there is no government or court order, only the implied threat of private litigation. Why should a publisher as powerful as Penguin give in to the antics of a few malcontents?

Chiki Sarkar, publisher at Penguin India has gone on record (in October 2012, on Nilanjana Roy’s blog) saying — “I am increasingly thinking that perhaps we should take the next injunction we are faced with and really fight it out”. What happened between October 2012 and February 2014, that made this admirable determination to fight for freedom of expression turn into an abject surrender before its adversaries, is a mystery to us. We could hazard all sorts of reasons, paramount amongst which is the prospect of a Modi-led central government after the next general elections, and what that might  mean for cultural and intellectual life in this country. But we have faced this scenario before, after all, The Satanic Verses was banned by a Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government.

Like we’ve said in our notice, Penguin is not some isolated and vulnerable blogger. Penguin Random House is one of the most powerful publishing houses in the world. This means that if and when things get dark we expect it to marshal the resources (which it has) and the courage (which it sadly has not) to defend its authors and titles.

How do scholars and authors preserve their autonomy? Is open access publishing the answer?
Open access publishing is definitely one of the answers. Though certainly not the only one. Open access publishing, or placing texts in the public domain means that the rights of a public to read also protect the rights of an author to write and publish freely. That is why we are asking Penguin to restore to the public domain,  the title that they have decided to pulp, so that anyone (with the author’s consent) can publish and circulate it, in the greater public interest.

It’s interesting to link this incident to the recent legal controversy over copyright in the context of the xerox shop in the Delhi School of Economics. As publishing houses merge and become gigantic corporations, they appear to be hurting more than guarding and enriching freedom of expression.

Yes, sadly that does seem to be the case. Indian copyright law had admirable exemption clauses and provisions for freedom to reproduce the contents of a publication for educational purposes. The big publishing lobby has been fighting hard to change this. A lot of noise is now being made about how bad the laws pertaining to freedom of expression are in India, and that it is the legal environment, not publishers, who are to blame for books being pulped as a result of out-of-court settlements. And yet, until now, we have not heard of any publishers, or publishers trade bodies lobbying the government or lawmakers to change the law to allow for a more liberal publishing environment. Penguin is now putting out that it is a victim of a repressive legal framework. But it has not been proved that publishing The Hindus; An Alternative History has broken any law. Had Penguin actually followed through on Sarkar’s words, namely to “really fight it out”, in the courts, the subsequent judicial decision might just have gone in their favor and that would have been a landmark decision for freedom of expression in this country. Sadly we will never know; as in this case Penguin has entered into an out-of-court settlement with a bunch of thugs without even waiting for a court decision. As Arshia Sattar, translator of Valimik’s Ramayana and a Penguin classic, has said , “Penguin has succumbed to the undercurrents in the air that encourage us to censor ourselves. Even before we are asked to do so”. Had Penguin been concerned about the repressive nature of Indian law, it would have made efforts to involve authors, readers, intellectuals and others to build a consensus favorable to freedom of expression, so that pressure can be put on lawmakers. That no publisher has so far done so, even as they have all argued for stricter intellectual property law, is revealing.

On the one hand, powerful publishing houses bear down on small photocopy shops that students use to multiply access to books that are unaffordable or hard to get and on the other hand, the same powerful publishing houses buckle under the pressure of arbitrary threats held out by a handful of individuals. We have heard it said that publishing houses cannot afford the annoyance and costs of litigation when it comes to protecting freedom of expression, but the same publishing houses have no hesitation in employing expensive, top of the line legal expertise, or in bearing the costs of litigation when it comes to protecting what they claim as their intellectual property against students and photocopy shop owners. The managerial practices of big league publishing are replete with such hypocrisies. This causes direct harm to scholarship, education, intellectual life and literary creativity.

Is there is a lack of intervention and a closing of ranks among authors who publish with Penguin which the publishing house is benefiting from?
On the contrary, we think that a lot of Penguin authors have expressed their serious criticism of what Penguin has done. We have heard from Arundhati Roy and Arshia Sattar. Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan have both demanded that Penguin restore to them the rights to their books in protest. We hope that the number of outraged authors grows, and we believe it will. All readers will be in solidarity with all writers who are outraged on this issue.

We think that both writers and readers realize that the future of the written and published word is a far bigger thing than the fortunes of this or that publishing company. Penguin, and other publishing houses had better start realizing that most bigots are bigots primarily because they do not read. The hurt sentiments of a few bigots may not be as costly for a publishing house’s business as the hurt sentiments of a lot of angry readers. We, readers, all those who love books and reading, can make publishing houses suffer far more than all those who simply do not, and will not, read. We can make sales figures plummet, (just as we can make them rise), we can go to court to enforce our readers rights, and if necessary, we will.

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