Banned book: The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani HarperCollins, 1998
Status: Injunction against the book in 1998
So the same kind of people who sneered at an Indian government for suppressing Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and thereby “appeasing” an over-sensitive minority are now in the business of book-banning too.
Penguin Books India’s craven decision to pulp its edition of US academic Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History is another example of publishers wilting without putting up a fight in court, in this instance to test the assertion by one Dina Nath Batra, of a Hindu nationalist outfit called Shiksha Bachao Andolan, that it insulted the feelings of a religious group.
The publisher is part of Penguin Random House, controlled by Germany’s Bertselsmann and Britain’s Pearson, perhaps the biggest force in world publishing. Presumably Mr Batra’s funding for litigation was not unlimited. Penguin could have well afforded to test his claim that the book fell afoul of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, making it a threat to civil order.
In previous cases of book suppression, usually on grounds of anticipated defamation, it was hard not to have some sympathy for publishers hopelessly outgunned by the legal firepower wielded by ultra-rich plaintiffs.
In the case of my book The Polyester Prince, about the Reliance patriarch Dhirubhai Ambani, my main surprise was that HarperCollins India, under Renuka Chatterjee, had the chutzpah to even attempt to publish. Threats to seek injunctions in every high court across India, and some heavy phone calls, got the edition pulped. The injunction, obtained without contest from a junior beak in the Tis Hazari court house, was a superfluous coup de grace. Ambani’s sons had the grace not to attempt the same with Roli Books’ updated version, Ambani & Sons, and let it stand or fall on its merits.
At the time, I stood in the illustrious company of Khushwant Singh, who had a pre-publication injunction taken out by Maneka Gandhi on a book about the Nehru-Gandhi family. Now, alas, more have joined the club. The Sahara group’s Subrata Roy has obtained a stay order in the Calcutta High Court against journalist Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s Sahara: The Untold Story, again on grounds of anticipated defamation. The author, in retrospect, had made the mistake of sending Mr Roy an advance copy.
In a second case, the former civil aviation minister Praful Patel was not so nimble, and launched an action to have a book about his handling of Air India, by the airline’s former executive director Jitendra Bhargava, withdrawn from circulation. Before even trying to take the case up from the Mumbai metropolitan magistrate’s court, and argue the defamation issues, Bloomsbury India issued an abject apology and agreed to withdraw all copies from sale.
Taking on Big Money is always risky—look at the way Russian oligarchs and others go “defamation shopping” to London, where even starting a defence costs £200,000 (a single copy sold or downloaded will establish jurisdiction). But even before they are hit with the full force of the Internet or the cost of London barristers, India’s publishers are wilting badly. In the Olympian heights of the Supreme Court of India, the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech is recognised. It might help if this is passed down to lower benches.
As for Mr Batra and his shock at Indian gods and goddesses being seen through overly erotic lenses, at least he mounted a legal case. But it comes after the disgraceful hounding of the painter M.F. Husain out of India. Penguin’s capitulation will encourage the intolerant to think they can get their way without a fight.