From the Bhopal gas tragedy to Facebook and Bloomsbury, a history of corporate culpability

The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, after a 2015 meeting at the social-media company’s California office. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal showed that Facebook has been allowing leaders and supporters of the BJP in India to post hateful content. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images
22 August, 2020

What ties Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide when the Bhopal Gas Tragedy occurred, to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and Nigel Newton, the CEO of Bloomsbury? It is the belief that they need not follow the same standards for their business in India that they do in Western democracies. The belief that, for profit, they can cut corners in what were earlier “the colonies,” and preach the liberalism that works for their consumers in the West. Whether Facebook collaborates with a populist autocrat to allow its platform to be used to instigate hate and violence, or a publisher like Bloomsbury decides to release a book that fosters a worldview that has already killed thousands over the past few decades, the ethical implications are much the same.

Bloomsbury has, virtually on the day of the launch planned by its authors, decided to withdraw a book that it was due to release in September. The book in question dealt with the violence that took place in northeast Delhi in February this year. Substantial evidence has emerged through reportage on the complicity of both politicians from India’s ruling party—the Bharatiya Janata Party—and the police in the violence that led to 53 deaths, of which at least 39 were were Muslims. Eyewitnesses have stated how Kapil Mishra, a BJP politician, instigated and participated in the violence against Muslims.

Yet, Bloomsbury edited and cleared a book which, in the words of one of its authors, blames the violence on “a Jehadi-Naxal lobby”—well-established code that the right-wing organisations have coined for those that oppose the ruling dispensation. The book has been authored by members of a “Group of Intellectuals and Academicians,” or GIA. Well before the book was ready, in March, the group had released a fact-finding report titled “Delhi Riots 2020: Report from Ground Zero.” At the time, one of the authors of the subsequent Bloomsbury title had made the same claim on Twitter, “Get entire report of GIA on Delhi riots here. Riots were not spontaneous but a pre planned conspiracy. Urban naxals & Jehadi network planned & executed them.” The report, which the authors presented to the union home ministry, has substantially been debunked.

The publishing house has withdrawn the book under false premises. Its statement claims that it decided to do so “in view of very recent events including a virtual pre-publication launch organised without our knowledge by the authors, with participation by parties of whom the Publishers would not have approved.” It adds: “Bloomsbury India strongly supports freedom of speech but also has a deep sense of responsibility towards society.”

A poster for the launch, which included Kapil Mishra. Since February, substantial evidence has emerged through reportage of Mishra's complicity in the Delhi violence. Bloomsbury stated that it was not hosting the launch and that its logo was used without permission.

But the issue is hardly of free speech or of publishers’ right to print books of their choice. The problem was not the launch, but the book itself. Publishers must be able to defend their processes and the facts that support the claims made in any non-fiction book they publish. The very fact that a book based on such claims passed through the hands of their editors and was cleared, speaks of a degree of laxity of editorial standards that would not pass muster in the United Kingdom or the United States.  

Much the same was true of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, when a leak at a Union Carbide facility in Madhya Pradesh led to over four thousand deaths. The evidence in that case led a researcher to conclude: “the facility continued to operate with safety equipment and procedures far below the standards found in its sister plant in Institute, West Virginia …UCC’s Sevin production plant was built in Madhya Pradesh not to avoid environmental regulations in the U.S. but to exploit the large and growing Indian pesticide market. However the manner in which the project was executed suggests the existence of a double standard for multinational corporations operating in developing countries.”

Without the particularities, the same conclusion can easily explain how Bloomsbury and Facebook, among several others, operate in India, “far below” the standards found in the West, “to exploit the large and growing” Indian market. The manner of their functioning too betrays the existence of a “double standard for multinational corporations operating in developing countries.” In the case of Bhopal, neither Anderson nor Union Carbide were ever made to answer for their criminal compromise of safety.

The evidence in the case of Facebook has been before us for the past few years, and was most recently spelled out in a Wall Street Journal article. According to the piece, Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy head in India, opposed the use of the platform’s hate-speech rule against Hindu nationalists, including BJP politicians. The WSJ reported that Das did so because she felt any such action would damage Facebook’s business relations with the ruling Narendra Modi government. The article went on to state that Das had provided the BJP with favourable treatment on election-related issues.

This implicit pact with the BJP for profits lives side by side by the liberal claims of Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook. While his company has done little to stop the platform being used by BJP and other Hindutva leaders for hate speech and Islamophobia, including incitement to violence, he was happy telling his staff just a few months ago, “You know, if somebody is actually going to encourage violence, I think in general, you just — you just don’t want that content up … And there have been cases in India, for example, where someone said, ‘Hey, if the police don’t take care of this, our supporters will get in there and clear the streets.’ That is kind of encouraging supporters to go do that in a more direct way, and we took that down.” He was referring to a post related to Kapil Mishra’s speech in northeast Delhi which sparked the violence. So, Zuckerberg pointed to one post that was taken down and used it to pat himself on the back, while his company’s Indian arm continued to collaborate in the murder and violence that the very post sought to provoke and justify.

Nigel Newton, who founded Bloomsbury, is hardly different. He has built a publishing brand from scratch that represents many good and great authors, but this incident has made it clear that the publishing house operates with very different standards in India. Consider the analogous title—a book written by white supremacists that claims the Black Lives Matter movement in the US was planned and executed by a “commie-jehadi” lobby. It is unlikely editors in the US or the UK would have even gone through such a manuscript, let alone commission or edit it.

The Right would have made much of the book if it had been published, and now it will try and make much of the fact that it has not. But we must not digress from the main point: this book should never have been cleared in the first place. The fact that it has now been withdrawn means little without responsibility being affixed, without substantial changes taking place within the Bloomsbury operation in India and how it operates in the future.