Publishers failed to stand up to Dina Nath Batra in ways that matter. What will this mean for the future of debate in India?

01 December 2014

ON 16 MAY, as the results of the 2014 general election poured in and set Narendra Modi on his way to being declared prime minister, the UK-based political analyst Megha Kumar received a letter from Orient Blackswan, her Indian publisher. A month earlier, Kumar’s first book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, had gone on sale. It was partly the product of her Oxford DPhil thesis, and had been rigorously reviewed before publication. Orient Blackswan’s letter informed her that the book would now be “set aside” for “comprehensive reassessment.”

The withdrawal of Kumar’s book came in the wake of a legal notice sent to the publisher by Dina Nath Batra, the indefatigable 84-year-old founder of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, an educational organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the notice, Batra objected to the contents of another Orient Blackswan title, a work of Indian history by a professor in New Zealand. The publisher’s response was to undertake a “pre-release” review of all its books that might attract similar attention.

Orient Blackswan’s cave-in had much to do with Batra’s past. He had already won a few major victories against publishers, the most notable of which had come in February: after a four-year legal dispute over the American scholar Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, the publisher, Penguin, settled with Batra out of court, withdrew the remaining copies of the book, and pulped them. Soon after, Batra targeted another Doniger book, On Hinduism, which was published in India by Aleph, an imprint of Rupa. By March, Aleph seemed to be heading much the same way as Penguin; it had agreed to have Doniger’s book reviewed by “independent” experts, and to share the results with Batra before reprinting it.

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Wendy Doniger Dina Nath Batra The Hindus RSS Aleph Book Company publishing industry Section 295A Rajiv Malhotra Penguin India