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Bloomsbury Drops Delhi Riots Book: No, It Doesn’t Harm Free Speech

Critics haven’t threatened the authors or publisher, essential fact-checking looks missing – So what’s the problem?

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
Bloomsbury Drops Delhi Riots Book: No, It Doesn’t Harm Free Speech
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Following a storm of criticism, Bloomsbury India announced on Saturday, 22 August that it had decided to withdraw a book titled Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, by advocate Monika Arora and Delhi University professors Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra, which was to be released in September.

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, a new debate has emerged: Is Bloomsbury’s decision to withdraw the book an assault on freedom of speech? Is it not a dangerous precedent for a book to be withdrawn by a publisher because of severe criticism?

Here’s why this withdrawal does not, in fact, amount to an attack on freedom of expression – though it should be noted that this is in no way a defence of Bloomsbury India’s decision-making in the matter.

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WHAT THE BOOK CLAIMED TO BE

The book in question was neither meant to be an expression of opinion or a commentary by the authors, nor was it meant to be a mere account of the events that took place from 23 February onwards.

The description of the book on its cover (shared by Monika Arora on Twitter), states that it:

“provides an explosive revelation of the plot behind the riots, how they were planned and executed, how weapons were procured and stockpiled, and exactly what happened. The book also takes a close look at the background to the carnage – CAA (The Citizen Amendment Act, 2019), the unrest and violence in universities and the dharna at Shaheen Bagh and other sites in Delhi.”

The description expressly notes that the authors were members of the Group of Intellectuals and Academicians (GIA), and that their book was “an account of the anatomy of the Delhi riots”.

It is clear, therefore, that the book was purporting to tell the truth about the origins of the violence which left 53 people dead, most of whom were Muslims, and hundreds injured and displaced. While sharing the news about the book launch, Monika Arora even used the phrase: “Let the truth be revealed”.

THE IMPLICATIONS OF SUCH A CLAIM

Since this was what the book claimed to be, any reasonable organisation looking to platform it would need to subject its contents and the qualifications of its authors to close scrutiny.

This is hardly controversial; any non-fiction book asserting to set out facts has to be subjected to some level of fact-checking and verification, and an assessment of the sources of information cited.

If the book is claiming to tell the truth about how a deadly communal conflagration erupted and who was responsible for it, the scrutiny needs to be even greater, given the subject matter.

Is this a legal duty? Not exactly, insofar as a publisher is free to publish a book even if it violates laws on defamation, hate speech and spreading false information which can lead to public disorder – provided the publisher is willing to take on the consequences of doing so under the law.

To successfully defend themselves in any legal proceedings, the publisher’s attempts to assess the veracity of the claims made in the book would no doubt be relevant, but that isn’t the point here.

The point is that from a purely ethical perspective as well, a book making claims like this one needs to be subject to extensive scrutiny by its publishers, as a failure to do so means potentially endorsing and platforming a potential misrepresentation of facts about the most serious communal violence in Delhi in decades.

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WHY THE REQUIRED SCRUTINY DOESN’T APPEAR TO HAVE TAKEN PLACE

Now one could ask those who criticised Bloomsbury India for agreeing to publish the book in the first place: what if the publishers had carefully considered the contents of the book, and only then decided to publish it?

While one cannot speak to the exact contents of the book at this time, there are a number of red flags that certainly appear to counter such a claim, including the original ‘fact-finding’ report on the Delhi riots by the same authors.

THE KAPIL MISHRA CONNECTION

First, there is the fact that BJP leader Kapil Mishra had been invited as the ‘Guest of Honour’ for the book launch by the authors that first drew attention to the book in the first place.

This is the same Kapil Mishra whose threatening speech at Maujpur on 23 February has been widely circulated, whose involvement in instigating the riots was alleged in multiple complaints to the police (who ignored them), the same Kapil Mishra against whom there are complaints of not just anti-Muslim speeches but anti-Dalit speeches as well.

For the authors of a book that allegedly has exposed the truth of the riots to ask him to be Guest of Honour despite his connection to the riots, gives one an indication of the book’s purported contents.

THE AUTHORS’ FACT-FINDING REPORT ON THE RIOTS

The GIA that the authors were a part of, had already published its fact-finding report on the Delhi riots on 11 March. This report claims that the riots were caused by, inter alia:

  • Left-Jihadi model of revolution
  • Urban-Naxal-Jihadi network, which planned and executed the riots
  • Radicalisation of Muslims from December 2019 onwards
  • Anti-CAA protests

(Don’t even ask what evidence is provided for these claims, see for yourself)

The report alleges that “jihadi mobs” indulged in targeted killings, looting and vandalising shops during the riots, while conveniently glossing over the fact that 38 out of the 53 people killed in the violence were Muslim.

Almost all the incidents detailed in the report relate to incidents of violence against Hindus by Muslims, and the three incidents involving Muslim victims/ damage to Muslim-owned property make no mention of the identity of the attackers.

That there was violence committed by members of both communities is not in dispute. Even the Delhi Police have charge-sheeted 535 Hindus for the violence, including murder, according to their submissions to the Delhi High Court.

You don’t have to disbelieve the GIA report, therefore, to realise that it has some rather glaring flaws. If their report had argued it was only going to detail a few incidents from the violence, there would be no issue. But like the book, the GIA report also claims to have discovered the origins of the riots, despite its limited scope.

THE AUTHORS’ KATHUA ‘FACT-SHEET’

Another red flag comes from the previous work of the same authors. The GIA also put out a ‘fact sheet’ on the Kathua rape and murder case after their visit to the area, in which they raised similar objections as the Hindu Ekta Manch.

In this, they went so far as to say that the accusations of gang rape against the accused were not corroborated by the injuries in the post-mortem report. To establish this, it compared the post-mortem report of the victim with the post-mortem report of another 8-year-old girl who had been raped and murdered in an entirely separate case.

Lest we forget, six of the seven accused were convicted for the horrific incident, with three convicted for gang rape. One of the other specific claims in the ‘fact sheet’ – on how the devasthan where the victim was confined and gang-raped could not have been the scene of the crime because people from other villages as well used to regularly use it – was specifically debunked in the verdict.

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IS A PROPER FACT-CHECK EVEN POSSIBLE AT THIS TIME?

Let us assume for a moment that the red flags identified above aren’t enough.

That a requisite fact-check of the authors’s claims had not been done by the publishers is also clear from the fact that no such authoritative fact-check about the origins of the riots is even possible at this point of time, as the investigations and cases are still ongoing.

While charge sheets have been filed in a number of cases relating to the violence, the charge sheet for the main conspiracy behind the riots has not yet been filed, with the police asking (and getting) for a further extension of time.

With the police version already running into trouble with the courts on questions of proof (with this being the latest), no responsible fact-checker would be able to assess the veracity of all the claims in this book till such time as the cases are finally decided.

The same would also go for any book making opposing claims about the origins of the riots at this point of time.

NO BAN, NO THREATS: SO HOW IS FREE SPEECH UNDER THREAT?

Does this mean that the authors can't put out their opinion? Of course not. But the packaging of such an opinion as fact, where veracity of said facts cannot be ascertained, is not something a responsible publisher should be doing, without the required scrutiny.

The fact-finding report can be released to the public, can be covered in the media, all of that, ensuring that freedom of speech is upheld.

Publishing this content as a book, despite all those red flags, is entirely open to criticism. Correcting a mistake that should never have been made is hardly an unreasonable response to such criticism.

Nobody is saying the book should have been banned by the government, nor has that happened. State censorship is not the demand here. But we have every right to criticise the decision-making of a private publishing house when they choose to put out such a book by such authors.

It would have been ideal if Bloomsbury India had realised the problem with this book before agreeing to publish it. Nonetheless, it has evidently dawned on them, following the news about who was attending the launch event, that there are problems with the book (or so they claimed in their statement about the withdrawal).

Should they have just gone ahead with the book and allowed people to give it negative reviews instead of pulling it? Why? Just in case those claiming this is an assault on free speech have forgotten, freedom of expression works for the publishers as well.

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This is no assault on free speech, even if we look at the extremely strong criticism that was unleashed online. Nobody threatened to attack the publishers or the authors, there was no intimidation. They were just subjected to entirely reasonable scrutiny and criticism, not a heckler’s veto (which requires silencing someone to prevent violence or disorder).

If Bloomsbury has breached its contract with the authors, then they can be sued for that. The company has evidently weighed this risk against the considerations against publishing the book, and made a decision.

Moreover, Bloomsbury India has no monopoly on the publishing business. The book can still be self-published, or picked up by another publishing house. Or just put out as a detailed report.

In the event that some other publishing house does put out the book, one can only hope it will be after the required scrutiny for such claims, and an understanding of the impact these claims could have if published without verification.

Note that I'm not even trying to make the argument that freedom of expression should not include hate speech, and that this is why the authors shouldn’t be given a platform to air their views.

This is purely about the scrutiny required when giving a platform to claims of fact such as these. At which Bloomsbury India appear to have failed when green-lighting the book initially – an error they seem to have corrected by now withdrawing the book.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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