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Freedom of Speech is double-edged sword, it cuts both ways - An Opinion Column

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On 22nd August 2020 at 4 pm a book was to be launched by Bloomsbury India called ‘Delhi Riots 2020 - The Untold Story’. It purported to present the ‘true’ events of the Delhi riots as it transpired in February 2020. Monika Arora, co-author of the book announced prior to the book launch “How Jehadi-Naxal lobby planned & executed ‘Delhi Riots-The Untold Story’. Book launch on 22 Aug at 4 pm...” on her twitter account sharing a poster of the book launch. BJP leader Kapil Mishra, who became infamous for his malicious hate-speech campaigns during the Delhi election 2020 and the Shaheen Bagh protest was apparently the guest of honour for the book launch. Understandably, the book launch became a politically loaded issue and Bloomsbury India, after facing massive online backlash cancelled the event and scrapped the publication of the book.

This is not the first book on Delhi riots that portray the riots as being one-sided and anti-Hindu. In July 2020, Nupur Sharma (who was one of the invitees to the book launch) and Kalpojyoti Kashyap (authors as listed on Amazon website) of the news portal OpIndia published a book-sized report called “Delhi Anti-Hindu Riots 2020, The Macabre Dance of Violence Since December 2019: An OpIndia Report”. The book went largely unnoticed by the general populace because there was no ‘book launch’ event nor any ‘online backlash’ against this book. The book is available as a ‘free to read’ book if you have a kindle unlimited account.

I largely concur that inflammatory books should have limited circulation, especially in a country like ours, but in the case of this book launch fiasco by Bloomsbury, I have to agree with Rama Lakhsmi’s take, because the concern is more diverse and deep and the politics of this event will have far-reaching and long term effects. The sheer level of ingenuity and the reach which WhatsApp groups have in India, the cancellation of a book launch is not going to prevent the circulation of the book. In fact, it is my firm belief that 24-hours after Bloomsbury withdrew the book, scanned pages of it have started snaking its way to ultra-nationalist right-wing WhatsApp groups and it might re-surface with a monstrous visage in the Indian political and social stage when the majority right-wing elements are ‘convinced’ (by virtue of WhatsApp circulations) that the book represents the ‘true’ version of events. They may even decide to ‘act’ on those version of events presented in the book to exact ‘retribution’.

The problem this event has created is two-fold.

Firstly, it concocts a notion that information needs to be controlled by an educated albeit elite group. The notion is exactly the mirror image of what liberal politics often maintain that deep state actors do by asserting their control on the different types of media (particularly the social media in recent years). The free and open flow and exchange of information cut both ways. It is not unheard of that dubious inflammatory pieces of information are often used by the deep state to meet ulterior motives. But that does not justify suppressing information even before it becomes public knowledge. Only through public dissemination and critical analyzing may a piece of information be judged dubious and false. Hence, the control of information by a single group, be it liberals or right-wing nationalist or the government is inherently dangerous for democracy.

The second issue is legal and counter-intuitive to the goal that liberal politics aspires to. We cannot have a public or democratic debate about a book the has not been released in the public sphere. It seems (at least in this case) the judgement was sentenced even before the crime itself was analyzed. This kind of attitude hampers the growth of critical thinking in society. A judgement should only be passed after the evidence has been put to careful scrutiny. Even in the case previous censorship of books in India (like Satanic Verses), the books were banned after it was published. One cannot sue the publisher/author for the contents of a book if the thing does not exist in the public sphere. Which brings me to my previous point about the book’s scanned pages circulating in underground WhatsApp groups. To treat a disease one must first detect it. By the actions of Bloomsbury cancelling the book launch, the general population might never come to know the contents of the book. In effect, if the contents were inflammatory or misleading and concocted to serve nefarious purposes - it has been hidden from the public view. It could have debated in public forums and possibly challenged in court but has been allowed to fester like a wound until it reappears as social unrest. The information in the book might fulfill its purpose of harbouring and fuelling discord and religious strife but there might never be any legal recourse available against it because the book - simply does not exist as of now.

In this age of social media, rarely any information can stay hidden for long. Sooner or later, contents of the book will make it’s way to the public. But in the process of trying to suppress it even before it appears, the liberal politics (or rather the cancel culture) has shown itself to have an uncanny resemblance of the very politics they proclaim to oppose. Perhaps both the sides are locked in a Hegelian struggle - but that’s for a deeper discussion for some other time. But this whole scenario reminds the prophetic letter in written a few months ago and signed by eminent academics like Noam Chomsky indicating the several apparent paradoxes of the ‘cancel culture’.

Time will tell what the actions of Bloomsbury have achieved, but it has undoubtedly given weightage to allegations of the BJP-RSS that liberal politics resort to pressure tactics and online trolling when it comes to issues not conforming with their brand of politics. In the coming days and weeks, the BJPs war cry “Hindus are in danger” will only grow louder, all thanks to the short-sighted hara-kiri committed by eminent liberals. Journalist Shekhar Gupta in his ‘Cut the Clutter’ episode offers a detailed analysis of the debacle.

As of writing this article, reports are in circulation that another publishing house has decided to launch the book.