25 December 2014

Letter from a Reader


I have just completed reading the  captioned book by Bill Aitken. (Paperback,2011). I just wish to convey to you my pleasure and gratitude for publishing such a nice book, in such a nice manner.  Though termed a paperback, it is so well printed and  and so securely bound, sewn at the section, instead of being glued. This is such a thoughtful  step, as the glue does not hold for long in our climate, and does not even allow us to open the book fully, without fear. This is such a book as one would not like to read  and throw, or even forget. The book in the present binding will easily last 30 years- which is great for the environment! Both the subject and author have been properly honoured by the quality of your publication. And you have honoured us readers, by  both the high quality and low price! It is almost like a gift! The illustrations are very good. ( I have other books of Bill Aitken published by others, including some well-known international names, and know how poor these are.)

The only deficiency I have felt is the absence of a map or even a rough sketch of the area covered, which would have  helped us appreciate the matter better. But please take this as a suggestion, and not as a complaint.
Please permit me to record my heart-felt thanks for such a nice book.

Yours truly,
(This letter, about Footloose in the Himalaya, is reproduced with permission)

22 December 2014

Fifteen Years, 275 Great Books

Now Fifteen Years Old
(1 April 2000 -- )

On All Fools’ Day 2015, Permanent Black will be fifteen years old. Tumultuous festivities are likely within the swarming intelligentsia of Ranikhet, the new academic hub of international thought processing in the lower Himalaya, which is where we are based for much of the year. Somewhere between 275 and 280 Permanent Black titles will have been published by then, of which 150 will have also appeared in paperback editions, and another 75 in electronic format.

Over these years our personnel strength has increased by twenty-five per cent: one year into our life we were, in 2001, joined by our first assistant, Biscoot (stray road-Asian); fourteen years on there has been a second retruit, Barauni (stray hill-Bhutia; ‘Barauni’ being the local pronunciation of Brownie), who has also been welcomed in at the level of assistant. His promotion to managerial rank will depend on how invitingly he barks in potential authors.

Animated barking, accompanied by some fairly furious tail-wagging by these two assistants, has greatly reduced our productivity and hugely increased the happiness with which we have published. Other than the publisher Rukun Advani, and the jacket designer and general dogsbody Anuradha Roy, we remain without permanent staff, which helps keep us permanently in the black.

Over the course of our fourteenth year we have published one more clutch of first-class books in history, politics, and related areas. Sumit Sarkar’s Modern Times: India 1880s–1950s deserves most special mention because it shows Professor Sarkar performing something of a Lazarus act—he returned from many weeks in an intensive care unit to provide his huge following of fans and readers this wonderfully synthesizing narrative about the late colonial period.

Two major books to see the light of day over the past months have been Akeel  Bilgrami’s Secularism, Identity and Enchantment (copublished with Harvard University Press), and Sudipta Kaviraj’s The Invention of Private Life (originated by Permanent Black, copublished by Columbia University Press). It is an achievement for us to have become the publishers of four books by Professor Kaviraj, an academic known for his immersion in the oral tradition (conversations and lectures).  Rosalind O’Hanlon’s At the Edges of Empire appeared at the start of the year and is her second with us—a great book equally for people interested in currents of historical thought, caste and religious conflict, and aspects of society in Western India. Vasudha Dalmia’s Hindu Pasts: Women, Religion, Histories will appear soon.

M.S.S. Pandian, author of one of our finest academic bestsellers, Brahmin and Non-Brahmin, passed away with a terrible suddenness. Professor Pandian had been working on a book he had signed on with us, on contemporary Tamil politics and we’re keeping fingers crossed for his JNU colleagues to work out how that nearly finished script might be salvaged.

Nayanjot Lahiri has made quite a name for herself as a historian who can also reach readers outside university enclaves. We will publish her excellent new biography of Ashoka, entitled Ashoka in Ancient India (rights outside South Asia with Harvard University Press). And Thomas Trautmann, the American who knows more about ancient India than any other American, is publishing a fascinating environmental history of the ancient world called Elephants and Kings (copublisher: the University of Chicago Press). Both these books will appear within a new series titled ‘Hedgehog and Fox’ (for reasons not difficult to guess) that we have just begun with Ashoka University. The series editor is the new vice chancellor of Ashoka University, Rudrangshu Mukherjee (author of Awadh in Revolt, his revised Oxford PhD). A book each by Steven Wilkinson of Yale (on the Indian army), and Dipesh Chakrabarty of Chicago (on Sir Jadunath Sarkar), will follow in this series.

Books by two old friends of Permanent Black, Leela Gandhi and Mahesh Rangarajan, are in the works, as is a wonderfully readable denunciation of Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology by three eminent thinkers: Nivedita Menon, Partha Chatterjee, and Sudipta Kaviraj.

We wish all friends happiness among books in the new year—among our books, naturally!

05 December 2014


Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on how translated works speak in the voice of the translator and, conversely, how the poet often speaks in the voice of the writer he is translating. And on the logic behind The Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English (Permanent Black, 2003)

Watch the interview here.

24 November 2014


ROMILA THAPAR, whose monograph, THE PAST BEFORE US, was published last year by Permanent Black (and copublished by Harvard University Press), will be eighty-three on 30 November 2014. 

We are happy to announce that her book has recently been made available in paperback.

While wishing her Many Happy Returns of the Day and many more productive years as historian and activist, we'd like to show thousands of her admirers across the world two extremely rare pictures. Neither of these photos has ever been made public, and Permanent Black is privileged in having been allowed permission by Professor Thapar to show them on its blog.

The first, showing Romila Thapar chairing a talk by Bertrand Russell, dates to 1955 in London. The second, showing her chatting with J.K. Rowling, dates to fifty years later, when it so happened that the University of Edinburgh bestowed an honorary doctorate each on one woman who made her name by arriving at conclusions from potsherds, and another who created a Potter. 

Professor Thapar was at pains to say that these photos should not suggest close friendship with either Russell or Rowling: she happened to interact with them and enjoyed the occasions very much. She says with a laugh that J.K. Rowling very sweetly apologised to her when they met at the convocation, saying she had not read any of Professor Thapar's books. Upon which Professor Thapar smiled and said something like, "Well that's a relief! Because I've read none of yours!"

29 October 2014


Much has changed in the world of South Asian history-writing since Sumit Sarkar’s renowned classic, Modern India (1983). “The passage of thirty years having rendered that work thoroughly dated, the futility of any attempt to revise it became increasingly clear to me, especially as over this period my own historical perspectives took new and unexpected directions”, says the author. The present work is an entirely fresh view of the same period.

Focusing on three huge areas — Economy, Environment, and Culture — Professor Sarkar offers his magisterial perspective on these.

Scientific discourses, laws, forest administration, peasants and adivasis, irrigation, and conflicts over land-use are examined, as are agrarian relations, commercialization, indebtedness, and famine. Trade, finance, and industry are other major focus areas.

Modern urban India is scrutinized via the literature on its big cities. Sociabilities, caste configurations, and public culture (theatre, cinema, and sports) are discussed, as are literature, dance, music, and painting.

In conclusion, says Professor Sarkar, “I have within each chapter incorporated the relevant historiographical developments, changes, and debates. Separate bibliographical sections will I hope facilitate the work of teachers and students.”

After Professor Sarkar's serious illness nobody had imagined he would be able to complete this monumental work. What went into the writing of it could make another book. The first copies were presented to him over a ceremonial dosa and a cup of tea -- that is the way he wanted it.

Tanika Sarkar (left) and Sumit Sarkar examining the first copy of MODERN TIMES. (photo by anuradha roy)

SUMIT SARKAR is among the most influential and widely admired historians of modern India. His several books include The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, Modern India 1885–1947, Writing Social History, and Beyond Nationalist Frames. Following a distinguished teaching career, he retired as Professor of History, Delhi University. He lives in New Delhi and is working on his next book.

PAPERBACK| Rs 595|456 pp| world rights|BUY

20 October 2014


Sudipta Kaviraj has long been internationally recognized as a political analyst and thinker. In this book he shows that he is also one of the most acute writers on the interconnections of literature and politics. The essays here lie at the intersection of three disciplines: the study of literature, social theory, and intellectual history.

Kaviraj argues that serious reflections on modernity’s predicaments and bafflements lie in literature. Modernity introduced new literary forms—such as the novel and the autobiography—to Indian writers. These became reflections on the nature of modernity. Some of the questions central to modern European social theory also grew into significant themes within Indian literary reflection.

What was the nature of the self—did modernity alter this nature? What was the character of power under conditions of modern history? How is the power of the modern state felt by individuals? How does modern politics affect the personality of a sensitive individual? Is love possible between intensely self-conscious people? How do individuals cope with the transience of affections, the fragility of social ties? Kaviraj’s essays show modern Indian literature as reflections on modern times, particularly of their experiential interior.

SUDIPTA KAVIRAJ is professor of Indian politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. He has also taught for many years at SOAS, London University, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has been a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as at the University of Chicago.

HARDBACK| 376 PP| Rs 895| Published by Permanent Black for South Asia| Copublished with Columbia University Press| BUY (in South Asia only)  Buy (outside South Asia)|

19 August 2014


Ratna Raman
chances upon an Unrecorded
Vocabularian-Phonetic Rebellion
Hitherto Unknown Even to the Postmodern
Phase of Subatern Studies History

How Subalterns
Squashed the Tea Estate Burra Sahibs

From Bagdogra Airport it is a lovely afternoon ride to the Dooteriah tea estate. The tree plantations start almost as soon as we get off the main highway and both sides of the road are thickly carpeted, with dense green tea bushes. Tea leaves plucked from bushes growing at a higher altitude are more flavourful, Babua, the man at the wheel, informs us while the car begins its smooth, gradual ascent into the hills. The journey is beautiful and we unwind on the way to the tea estate, drinking in the colours of the sky and the earth. At the start of the tea estate the smooth road is replaced by badly rutted, narrow roads that were originally horse carriage routes through which the tea estate managers travelled up and down. Now cars and jeeps travel on them jostling shock absorbers and the innards of people sitting in them.
Photograph by the author

We arrive at the Dooteriah Estate in the early evening and alight at the Guest house, a gorgeous old building with high ceilings and ancient red oxide floors, once characteristic of South Indian architecture. The floor has a fabulous sheen, despite hairline cracks all over, rather like those on heritage porcelain taken out of ancient family chests. There is many a slip and unceremonious sprawl to be got past before we eventually sit down to our first cups of freshly brewed Darjeeling leaf tea, the flavour enhanced by Britannia Top biscuits. The view from the top is nothing short of spectacular. Lush, blue-green, triangular mountain ranges frame sloping valleys with large circular bushes of tea that taper into greenness while all around the bungalow, end-of-summer flowers  burst into colour within beds and in black polythene bags filled with soil. This horticultural practice of growing plants in durable black polythene containers in most places in these mountains sustains not only green life but also precious clayey soil since the requirement for terracotta containers has been greatly reduced by the sustained use of portable polythene.

The visiting estate manager invites us to look at the sifting and processing of tea on the estate. The journey begins from the point handpicked leaves packed into plastic bags arrive via ropeway from different gardens in the mountains. The leaves are spread out to dry and then processed, eventually dried and then sorted into four categories. It is a fascinating process and we also taste different flavours. When asked if the name Dooteriah meant anything specifically, he draws our attention to the tall Datura bushes with large white flowers that grow all over the estate. “It is possibly a corruption from the name Datura,” he observed laconically, pushing us to recall how many similar instances of naming were part of the legacy that the British left behind in India, in the course of moving back to their more scientifically named destinations. We have, of course, quickly renamed all our significant roads and cities. (Not that such change is ideal or advisable since it short-circuits and compresses memory while erasing history.) However, in quieter and relatively undisturbed pockets of the Indian subcontinent, older names remain and reverberate, endorsing the multiculturalism of time via language.

Dooteriah for Datura is a charming example of the sort of naming specific to the British residency in India. As was the elaborate ritual of tea tasting that we were drawn into during the  subsequent  period of our stay. Although great tea grows now on our mountain ranges, our tea drinking (and coffee drinking) traditions date back to the British, who planted and oversaw the idyllic, luxurious tea estates, where the only thing that everyone really did was to grow, pluck, process, pack, brew, and drink tea. Every other activity was only incidental, since in good weather the mountains ask very little of inhabitants and visitors alike.

On the way to other tea estates as we drove in and around the various valleys, we saw little shops selling green produce on different sides of the road. Many kinds of mountain greens, violet radishes, luscious green gourds, and small round red chillies that I first mistook for cherry tomatoes greeted us. Among the spread out vegetable ware, I was struck by the abundance of a vegetable that appeared sporadically on Delhi’s vegetable carts for two days in October and disappeared almost as if it were only a mirage.

 When we visited our grandparents in Chennai and uncles and cousins in Bangalore and Mysore, usually in the summer, we were first introduced to this vegetable. Akin to the gourd and the pumpkin families, at home we referred to it as chow chow and in South India it was called Bengalooru Katthirikai (eggplant). Other than the fact that its oval shape was reminiscent of medium-sized green brinjals, there was little other similarity between the real eggplant and this green vegetable that grew on a vine. It could be cooked into a stew, along with lentils or cubed  and cooked into a dry vegetable, garnished with coconut and eaten as an accompaniment to Saambar rice (spicy tamarind lentil mixed with plain rice). The peel of the chow chow was thick and covered with a sort of white stubble. This was usually transformed into a smooth thohayal (chutney). For making the chutney, the peel was roasted along with black gram dhal and ground with a little tamarind and red chillies. The resultant paste was garnished with mustard seeds and asafoetida and subsequently eaten with rice, dosas, chappatis, and pooris. The peeled vegetable was often cut into roundels and dipped into thick chickpea batter (mixed with a little rice flour, salt, and a pinch of asafoetida) and served up as platefuls of hot fritters, with steaming cups of coffee, that we consumed on hot lazy afternoons.

 Here in the hills there seemed to be two varieties of chow chow,  pale green and creamy white. Stopping by the stately Teesta river at the vegetable market adjoining the highway, I am informed by the women selling the vegetable that the white variety is costlier and has a longer shelf life. I am intrigued further by its local name, Iskush. They offer me stems and leaves of the Iskush and I learn that these are cooked by themselves as greens or with yellow lentils and eaten with rice. As I mouth the name Iskush in order to remember it better, Babua, our charioteer, amused by my interest, regales me with stories of the Iskush.
When he was a little boy, Babua tells us, in a village not very far from Kalej valley, his grandfather would come home beaming from ear to ear, at the end of a day’s work. When asked why he was so happy, he would proudly announce “momo khaya (I ate momos). ” Babua went on to explain that long ago “momos” (steamed dumplings), now part of popular street food in much of North India, were made by monks at the not-so-nearby Buddhist monasteries. Cooking food for an entire community, these dumplings (mostly vegetable) were steamed inside enormous containers, and lay visitors such as his grandfather had access to them if they were in the vicinity of the monastery at mealtimes. “We used to wonder then,” Babua muses, “what this momo was that made our grandfather so happy. Only when we were older and could head to the monasteries did we find out. These days, every household makes momos, not only with vegetables, but also with chicken and pork, and everyone owns small steamers in which they cook them, so now every child knows the taste of momos.”

“You must try iskush momos,”  he adds, deferring to our herbivorous preferences. As we head home he stops and draws our attention to a small wood-and-iron shed beside a tea garden over which green leafy vines have been trained. Stepping out of the car we can see Iskush gourds of varying sizes draped in pleasant green foliage. My daughter, who does not share my fascination for Iskush, asks Babua why he does not extol the potato which is so much more delicious. “The potato can be found all the year round,” replies Babua. “The Ishkush is there for only a season and we eat its leaves and its stems and its fruit. Then it is gone and we miss it. In my village, after the fruit is over and the leaves and vines have been consumed, the roots are dug out and eaten and relished. Then we wait for the next season!”

We reach the guest house and savour Iskush momos (reminiscent of ravioli-stuffed zucchini) that Mahendra has made for dinner. The next morning, following a pre-breakfast huddle with Mahendra, green Iskush paranthas (the leaves and vines are cooked and ground and kneaded with flour and spices) find pride of place at the dining table. Crisp and green, the paranthas are served with savoury yellow lentils cooked with Iskush stem and leaf. Washing all this goodness down with steaming cups of tea, I wonder idly if Iskush was introduced to the Kanchenjunga ranges  by plantation wives who grew them in the impromptu kitchen gardens that frame the sides of magnificent tea estate bungalows. 
The Ishkush on its vine. Photograph by the author.

Slowly, it dawns on me that maybe, when plantation wives arrived in India, they were armed with squash from their gardens. They must have planted a few aged squash in the lush soil, longingly hoping to propagate familiar associations of home in a strange new land. Emboldened by the familiar climate, the squash rooted itself effortlessly in this foreign environment. It appealed to local residents who took to this English vegetable, root, shoot, and leaf. They eventually appropriated its name and made it their own. Iskool and iscooter  are two significant (north) Indianizations of  the words ‘school‘ and ‘scooter’,  both of European origin. The third and perhaps more endearing (north) Indianization that I have come upon is the exotic Iskush which has now replaced the low profile, more prosaic, ‘squash’.  With the season’s last crop of Iskush carefully rolled in old newspapers, and tucked into carry bags, we headed for Bagdogra, from where we would soon return to the workaday plains.

Read her own blog, in the midst of life, here

17 August 2014

Scholars and Scholarly Publishers: New Developments

Changes in the climate of relations between academic authors and their publishers


Six years ago the vice chancellor at Delhi University was told he could soon be arrested. Someone in Dera Bassi near Chandigarh had filed a case against him: an essay by the scholar A.K. Ramanujan in an OUP book titled Three Hundred Ramayanas had hurt the religious sentiments of the plaintiff. Ramanujan was showing Hinduism as made up of a variety of traditions. The plaintiff found this offensive because he knew it to be a fact that there was one true Hinduism: the one he had been taught in Dera Bassi. The case was filed by a proxy. The man behind it is believed to have been an RSS schoolteacher, Dina Nath Batra, known for his interest in a new kind of Mahabharata to dismantle the Nehruvian worldview and replace it with the Savarkarian and Golwalkarian. Central to his effort was a rejection of the empiricist assumptions on which history is based because it offends what Hindutva thinks is Hinduism.

The Delhi vice chancellor was only the first target of a man who had sensed that the judiciary can be used as a stalking horse. The charge of causing harassment can be sidestepped by making the fight look all cleanly legal, even as the individual complained against is harassed into having to employ a lawyer, pay court fees, and defend himself for years on end in places he didn’t even know existed.

The Delhi vice chancellor and the OUP, who jettisoned the Ramanujan essay, were trying to escape trips to court. Their decisions buttressed Batra, whose next target was the academic publisher. The OUP, who had published Ramanujan, had even disowned their superstar author and—until shamed by pressure from their scholarly constituency—declared Ramanujan’s books out of print. It was like the walls of Jericho in the Old Testament, which crashed not because of an assault but by mere trumpet blasts blown by Israelite priests. Batra had hardly hitched up his khaki shorts to find the opposition pulling down its yellowed pants.

Setting aside the work of British Orientalists from William Jones to Vincent Smith, scholarly publishing in English became properly visible in modern South Asia only about fifty years back. Nationalism of the strongly moral sort was a generally fierce impulse from the 1950s to the 1970s, and among some of the Indian branches of British publishers—such as OUP, Longman, and Macmillan—nation-building of a kind came into being via the publication of learned works by Indians. Gradually, with improvements in standards and the efforts of exceptional publishers such as Ravi Dayal, it even became prestigious to publish within the country. This spawned smaller imprints which snapped successfully at the heels of the bigger corporations from which they had broken away. For about twenty-five years—until the arrival of Penguin India gave Indian fiction writers a distinct presence which overshadowed the university crowd—the phrase ‘Indian writing in English’ referred mostly to the writings of scholars and scholar-poets such as Ramanujan.

This quiet arena seldom made it to the newspapers. Books appeared and were reviewed; publishers acquisitioned invisibly, earning themselves a little money, some social clout, and a reputation for helping local scholarship. Relations between writers and publishers were friendly.

Since Batra’s assault on Ramanujan, two alien elements have disturbed this serene flow. First, the terrain has become less unfamiliar to the public, sometimes via front-page headlines, ironically because of Batra’s efforts to stop the flow altogether. Second, the spirit of bonhomie between authors and scholars has become strained because of a new wariness between the two. Publishers now instinctively look for potential legal difficulties within every script and assess the author’s possible degree of animosity towards them should problems arise. Authors now instinctively wonder if the publisher will ditch their books the moment there is any hint of legal trouble from the Hindutva cohort.

The most unfortunate instance of this changed atmosphere is the trouble between Megha Kumar and her publisher Orient Blackswan (OBS), with the author denouncing the publisher for altering the normal process of publication by getting lawyers to re-review a finished copy of her book. Academics in sympathy with her predicament have supported her, even as they have acknowledged her publisher’s need to protect its staff and commitment to other authors. OBS have maintained that neither Kumar’s book nor another attacked via the courts by Batra—Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition—has been withdrawn. One of their directors, Nandini Rao, summarizes their peculiar problem:

While we were obviously  aware of the Doniger issue, the James Laine case, etc., when we received Batra's legal notice for From Plassey to Partition, we were stunned that a bestselling title by a universally acknowledged authority should be targeted a decade after its publication. 

The fact that we are going ahead with Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s book demonstrates our commitment to independent scholarship and our refusal to be bullied. … However, we are not above the law. … we have to seek appropriate academic and legal advice and find ways to put out our books in the market without them facing any hurdles, primarily without a stay being placed on their distribution.
Both James Laine and the MD of the publishing house faced criminal cases and long legal battles. Despite the author issuing an apology‎ the Bhandarkar Institute was ransacked. … we do not want to stop publication of Megha Kumar’s book. Our interest is in finding a way to publish it without a stay being placed on its distribution and eventual reach.

But how can such commitment proceed other than along the directions the publisher may soon be asked by a court to follow? With this position Professor Partha Chatterjee says he has some sympathy and several caveats:

… a lot of the hostility between authors and publishers has occurred recently because of a series of cases in which publishers have withdrawn or are asking for review of books that they have already published, after having gone through all their evaluations and editorial checks. When this happens, authors quite rightly feel betrayed.
         To avoid this, it is necessary that publishers do all their evaluations, including assessment by lawyers of the risks that the book might violate the law or even that it might draw unacceptable political attacks, before they actually accept a manuscript for publication and sign a contract with the author.         

Publishers will find the OBS logic compelling because the press has carefully distinguished itself from OUP/Ramanujan and Penguin/Doniger. But many authors will agree more with Partha Chatterjee’s logic: the publisher had best assess it all beforehand; once a contract is signed, no more lawyers.

The Megha Kumar problem is also the symptom of a generally dismaying development. A thorough checking of every sentence in every book for possible future Batra-bashing means not just protracted turnaround time but the appearance of fewer scholarly books. Batra may not eventually succeed in court, but the Batra effect has already created conditions of self-censorship which greatly increase the costs of academic publishing. The phenomenon is temporary and not a decimation of Indian scholarly publishing—the domain is too large even for the RSS to demolish—but it has vitiated the climate for investment in this kind of book.

How do authors and publishers respond to this altered scenario? Nayanjot Lahiri sees Batra in an illustrious lineage of disruptors:

Remember the litigation around D.N. Jha’s Holy Cow – Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions ? It was strange because Rajendralal Mitra in the nineteenth century convincingly argued for cow sacrifice and beef eating among the Indo-Aryans, just as P.V. Kane did in the 1940s … the most determined litigants in his case were not Hindus but Jainas. Jha had cited evidence to show meat-eating among them in ancient times. The book was published by Matrix Books and was eventually withdrawn by the publisher … In situations like this, the publishers should support authors—especially if they have deep pockets like OUP and Penguin.

She also raises an issue that bothers most authors and publishers these days: self-censorship. Among authors and publishers the term now means a state of intimidation, proceeding with extreme caution for fear of harassment.

Of this there are several examples. It is not generally known that an excellent monograph by the American professor of Hindi Studies, Philip Lutgendorf, entitled Hanuman: The Life of a Text—Performing the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (University of California Press, 1991: winner of the A.K. Coomaraswamy Prize in 1993), did not find an Indian co-publisher because of its historical treatment of a religious subject. Why would any Indian publisher buy Indian rights for a book virtually guaranteed to be the object of a long-range Batra missile from the day it appeared in the market? As Professor Vasudha Dalmia, Hindi professor at Yale, puts it, “Undressing the Hindu gods doesn’t go down well these days, specially if the scholar is based in the West.” Multiplied, this situation suggests a possible future of mass self-censorship, with the best books on Indian religious history being published and available in the West but not in India, making a mockery of Indian protestations about its democracy providing freedom of expression to writers and thinkers. Several varieties of Batradom exist and keep a vigilant eye out for intellectual spaces to infiltrate: Muslim conservatives, Khalsa Sikh gurudwara heads, and hyper-sensitive Jainas have stifled normal historical investigation whenever it has suited those in power within these communities. The talibanisation of Afghanistan and Pakistan looks harsher than the hindutvisation of India for the moment, but as Shelley would have put it, “If Taliban comes, can Hindutva be far behind?”

Two other instances, similar to the eventful non-publication of the Lutgendorf book, confirm India’s international stature as an already existing undemocracy of self-censorship. First, Paul Courtright’s book Ganesa (OUP New York, 1985) had to be withdrawn by the publisher’s Indian branch because of its historical and psychonalytic treatment of how the image of an elephant developed into a holy cow; twenty years after its appearance the author was still getting death threats. Second, one of the most elegantly crafted, learned, and readable monographs ever to be written on an Indian subject, Harjot Singh Oberoi’s The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (OUP India and University of Chicago Press, 1994) so incensed the orthodox Sikh establishment in Canada that Oberoi made himself a living monument to self-censorship: he resigned his Sikh Studies chair in 1996 and stopped writing on Sikh history altogether. The reason? He has a family, and doesn’t feel any strong Joan-of-Arc urges.

Academics generally believe OUP India and Penguin India, being rich and big, did not have to buckle. Romila Thapar says:

Wealthy publishers like Penguin have money power behind them and there are ways in which money can be used.
         If publishers are afraid of their offices being vandalized and their staff being physically assaulted, then they should make a public announcement in the media of who is attacking them and which book and author and give the text of the attack and the response of the author. These are not surreptitious actions and need public exposure.
         There is a fear of long drawn-out legal cases, but no publisher has gone this route. If the courts were to clear such passages in even one book it would be a major victory. If it does not, then it will be no worse than it is at the present.
         Religious nationalism cannot go on forever. Historically it does have a limited time period—maybe a half century or so. So those that support it are desperate to establish it while they can. They resort to all means—physical violence, legal threats, abuse. … Religious nationalists always suffer from lack of confidence: we are going through the process of their testing their strength by making all these attacks and seeing where they succeed.  
OBS’ assurance of wrestling Batra to the ground will be a kind of litmus test of what authors want: a steadfast defence of the author and the book contract.

A historian known for his ability to summarise large swathes of intellectual work is Sumit Sarkar, who says:

                  A quiet and insidious pressurising of publishers and authors is evidently under way. It has not so far led to formal official bans or even instructions to withdraw publications, as happened the last time the NDA was in power. This time, it takes the form of individual action—legal notice or even a threat of that. The beauty of it is that the government cannot be held openly responsible, even if we know that Batra has been a RSS member almost since its beginning. This reminds me of the method of ‘rumours and messages’ in Elizabethan England which would be carefully circulated and with which Elizabeth managed to manipulate Parliament without open commands or formal censorship laws.

Is a fight-back replicable within smaller houses that have painstakingly developed respected niche lists but lack the resources required for protracted legal battles? Ritu Menon runs Women Unlimited, a small independent press. She argues the need to distinguish the big press from the small in the context of assault:

I wonder whether it’s useful to make a distinction between large multinational corporations, who have very real compulsions and pressures on them, and small independent presses who might just be able to persuade lawyers to argue, pro bono, on their behalf, on principle. (Recent cases have all involved big publishers; Aleph after all is owned by Rupa.) Smaller presses may have less to lose in some respects than the big guys, but the threat of violence remains the same for both. But yes, unfortunately, it does polarise authors and publishers. Let's not forget, though, that the same was true for Lawrence, Joyce, Burroughs, Rushdie, and others!
         Yes, this is a very vexed situation, one that is exacerbated by the state's abdication of its responsibility. …

Another highly regarded independent is S. Anand of Navayana, who publishes an eclectic range centred in the universalist politics of Ambedkar. His passion is evident in his views of the current problems:

Whether as publishers or as writers, if we are engaged politically, we are constantly—and we have to be—in some kind of tension with the state. Whether the government is run by the BJP, the Left, DMK or the Congress, it does not matter. … 
   That said, in India, like Ambedkar said: it is not the state but society which is the bigger gatekeeper. Several times in India, society is less enlightened than the state. And when this state comes under the control of conservative societal elements, the state acts conservatively no doubt. It has been said before that our Constitution is more enlightened than its citizenry. Which is the case.
   Now, after whatever years of independence we still do not have editors who happen to be Dalit or Adivasi working in the publishing industry, and there’s no introspection on this … How many dalit authors manage to publish books with mainstream presses? And on what terms are they published? Freedom of expression does not exist for millions in India who have no way of being heard or getting published. And in this so-called publisher–author face-off these issues remain under the thick carpet which hides a lot of dirt despite a pleasing pattern on the surface. 
   Publishers and authors are always in a dialectical relationship. And several times publishers refuse to publish certain authors; authors refuse to publish with certain publishers. Now with the Hachettes and Bertelsmanns of the world, profit is the only ethic. Ideas have to sell. And if ideas come in conflict with the state and conservative elements in society, both the MNC publisher and the family-owned OBS will succumb even before a fight is on the cards. 

This is not a conclusion with which everyone will agree, and certainly not OBS. People fight their own fights in their own ways. Is every publisher who wants investments to yield a decent return automatically profiteering, ideologically deficient, and liable to crumble when taken to court? OBS v.Batra will provide an answer to Anand’s excoriating perspective.
All this said and done, one vital feature remains to be factored in: the internet. Batra’s war is directed against paper editions, and court directions suppressing books have been limited to such editions. Meanwhile readers are switching to e-editions and pirated downloads, which are virtually impossible to attack or ban. If publishers have seen their sales drop and their margins plummet because of the new technology, the new formats may also be the reason why Batra and the RSS find it futile to target the monograph and switch to altering textbooks, where the internet cannot thwart them.

So, if Tagore were writing today, he might conclude:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up by the internet into fragments
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my Facebook Page awake me.

03 July 2014


To mark the publication of Akeel Bilgrami’s major recent book, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Permanent Black, 2014, details below), we requested the political theorist, Uday Singh Mehta,
to converse with Akeel Bilgrami on issues raised by his book and related matters. Uday Singh Mehta is the author of the pathbreaking Liberalism and Empire: Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought (1999), which won the J. David Greenstone Book Award 2001 for the best book in history and theory. 

It turned out to be a scintillating, deeply thoughtful discussion.

I think of you, especially in the essays that constitute this book, as doing a rather particular kind of philosophy. It is a very distinguished tradition of practitioners, including the late Richard Rorty, Bernard Williams, and Alasdair MacIntyre in the Anglo-American tradition; Michel Foucault, in the French tradition, Adorno and Walter Benjamin in the German tradition, and of course several others. One of the things that marks this way of doing philosophy (if that is the term we should use) is that the familiar, and typically sharp lines, that separate philosophy from the humanities and the social sciences are willfully and self-consciously breached. I don’t mean that they are breached just for heck of it, but that questions are posed in such a way that makes answering them reliant on such a breach. Bernard Williams, as you know, proudly affirmed philosophy as a humanistic discipline. Your own work is heavily informed by the Dissenting tradition of 17th century thought and by contemporary history and social science. And, yet, in many ways this way of doing philosophy is the minor key of contemporary Anglo-American, and increasingly, even Continental philosophy. How would you describe what you do? Does it matter to you if it is thought of as “doing philosophy,” or does that description seem arcane to you, as it did for Richard Rorty?

I must confess that my work has not been motivated by any self-conscious effort towards trying to reorient the discipline of philosophy nor even to follow a tradition set by the philosophers you mention, much as I admire them all.  Rather, it’s just that certain issues grabbed my interest and I followed what I thought was most important and urgent in them and when that led to having to read history and intellectual history, and to study some political economy and politics and a variety of cultural phenomena, I just followed that lead as best I could—mostly for the sake of coming to some fundamental understanding of the issues.  You are certainly right that most philosophers do not have a capacious understanding of their subject and many might even view this sort of outreach as contaminating their discipline.  However, looking at things from the other side, we mustn’t forget that the social sciences themselves, particularly Economics, have manifestly abandoned the historical, the broadly conceptual, and, above all, the value-oriented aspects of their pursuits.  So it is possible that we are now at a disciplinary moment when philosophy is poised to pick up that slack and pay close attention to the very things that the social sciences have abdicated.  This would, then, be an exciting time to be doing philosophy. 

One of the very striking claims you have been making for several years, and which you make in these essays (and which has had a huge influence on me), is that for a figure like Gandhi, politics in its many forms, including in our agency as citizens, just was not the terms through which he thought of bettering the world. This is a remarkable claim, especially since we so often think of Gandhi as having inaugurated mass politics in India. Encouraging a certain type of mass public action is one of his most enduring influences all over the world. The idea that there could be something profoundly wrong with the world; and that nevertheless, the redress to that condition was not to be secured through political means, goes against the dominant grain of modern thinking. Could you say more about this? Is this a way of animating the category of ethics as something sharply distinct from politics, rather than the way it is typically thought of as something tied to politics?

When I made the claim you cite, I was trying to understand what I described as a “studied indifference” in much of Gandhi’s theoretical writing (of course, we must not understand the  term “theoretical” here in any academic sense) to the kind of liberal, constitutional, framework within which the very idea of politics was mostly understood in the tradition of his colonial masters.  I was trying to put that indifference together, on the one hand with Gandhi’s incessant moralistic perspective on things and his constantly avowed religiosity and, on the other hand, with his resistance to political abstractions that took one away from the experiences of ordinary people in their quotidian social habitat.  In order to integrate these different aspects of his thought, it seemed to me right to attribute to him a skepticism about the idea that what is bad in human beings (a constant theme for Gandhi as for all religious moralists) can be set right simply by making them over into some abstract form of being called “citizens” in a form of polity that came to be associated with the nation-building exercises in Europe since the Westphalian peace.  That is what I meant when I suggested Gandhi was an anti-political thinker.  This is quite compatible with viewing Gandhi as having inaugurated a form of mass politics in India that was highly original and imaginative.  You ask something slightly different: whether he believed that a wrong in the world (which is somewhat different from what is bad in us) could be redressed by political means.  Well, for him, I think a lot depends on what that wrong is or, better, what level of description you give it.   It also depends on which phase and context of his thinking we are talking about.  So, for instance, if you described the wrong in terms of what he opposed in very specifically oppressive actions and policies of the British government in colonial India or colonial South Africa, he certainly repeatedly appealed to mass politics of one kind or other to resist such wrongs.  Clearly, in this sense, he believed in a politics of resistance.  So also, as others have pointed out, when it came to the resolution that was moved at the Karachi Congress in 1931, he found himself in a context where he openly committed himself to a radical (rather than an orthodox liberal) version of political principles and rights.  Even on secularist politics he changed his mind, as Bipan Chandra has documented, from the time of his early writings to what he was saying by the 1940s.  (I discuss some of this in my chapter on secularism in the book.) But it is also well known that he believed that there was a great deal in modern civilization of the West that was tied to capitalism and more generally to attitudes of gain and profit and consumerism that you could not merely constrain by liberal or even social-democratic conceptions of politics, i.e., by a familiar set of political, legal, and economic constraints.  Rather one should shun the entire mentality that underlies it.  He certainly did not have a socialist alternative that was supposed to follow upon a transcending of capitalism in the way that Marx did; instead he wanted to preempt capitalism in India (not unlike Marx in his very late phase when he was focused on the peasant communes in Russia) and to do so by repudiating the mentality, the cognitive outlook, that lay behind it.  This required a deeper reflection about what the corrosive moral and political effects of that mentality are.  Hind Swaraj, among other things, is a harshly worded reflection about just that.

Staying with Gandhi, one of the ways in which Gandhi strikes me as almost unique among colonial critics of imperialism is that his challenge to the empire seems singularly unmarked by a sense of inferiority, or a lack of self-confidence—itself so often a product of the empire. This does not seem to me to be true of Nehru, Ambedkar Jinnah, or for that matter Kenyatta or Nkrumah.  They all appear not just to have been influenced (as Gandhi clearly was too) by the ideas and practices of the empire, but also in some way distorted, even disfigured, by them. I am not sure you agree with this characterization of Gandhi (and the others), but it makes me wonder if the reason for it might have something to do with what you argue, namely that Gandhi’s opposition to the empire is ultimately a part, and only a part, of a much larger critique of modernity. Gandhi (like Marx), as you point out, is ultimately really concerned with a kind of alienation from nature and from ourselves, which for both of them are the defining traits of modernity. In that sense his critique of empire, even though very sharp, is almost a secondary purpose, and because of that he can inoculate himself from the distortions, such as those that stem from wanting to wrestle power from the imperialists.

The way I’ve put the point you are making is to say that Gandhi had a very specific sort of confidence that later, even very powerful, anti-imperialist voices such as Fanon or, say, Edward Said, did not possess.  Your term “inferiority” is perhaps a slightly misleading description to put on what the source of the lack of this confidence in the others really is.  So take someone like Said, who is so widely read today. He wrote eloquently about the distortions that “the West” has shown in its understanding and conceptualizations of the cultures of the global South (or what was called the “Orient”).  But he never really asked what was wrong in the West’s own civilizational tendencies, in its own conceptualizations, in short what was wrong in the West’s understanding of itself.  It requires a specific kind of confidence to ask that, a confidence that comes not from overcoming a sense of inferiority so much as from possessing a set of intellectual and conceptual reserves.  It really comes, in my view, from being a philosopher of a sort that I believe Gandhi was and Said and Fanon were not.  It comes from having deeply reflected on moral concepts and the moral life and its relation to politics and economics and culture.  That is really my primary reason for being so interested in Gandhi and, as you say, for my placing him side by side with Marx and looking at his ideas on nature, alienation, and so on.  Your question, as you have formulated it, makes it seem that if one sees this quality in Gandhi’s thought, one must see his anti-imperialism as secondary and somewhat unimportant.  I wonder if that can be right.  It would be a bit like saying Marx’s anti-capitalism is made less important because he believes that transcending capitalism is in the service of freeing human beings into a new and liberated subjectivity that is unalienated.  I would prefer to say that Gandhi’s anti-imperialism was supremely important to him but it nested within his eventual ideal of a self-governing moral human subject, just as Marx’s critique of capitalism did.

You were a close friend and colleague of the late Edward Said. By pure happenstance during the last conversation I had with Edward (on the phone) he mentioned you with great affection and admiration and spoke of the course you were teaching together. You write very movingly in your essay about him. It is an essay about Edward but also about friendship. Your relationship was clearly a friendship of many parts — shared intellectual passions, political commitments, a deep love of music, and many other things. Reading your essay on Said it made me think about friendships and the academy. How have these and other ( I am thinking of Noam Chomsky and Prabhat Patnaik to whom you dedicate this volume) specifically “academic” friendships molded your life in the American academy and are there such friendships that link you with India? Has friendship been important to the ideas that you cherish?

It’s hard to talk about specific friendships in a public forum, Uday.   But, I do see the point of your question.  Speaking generally (individuals apart), in the academy and in intellectual life more broadly, when you learn about ideas from others they become friends in a way that is closely tied to personal respect as much as intimate or amiable relations.  Anyone with any experience in the academy will notice that intellectual ability is far more common than intellectual character, and may even perhaps be less important than it.  I reckon all of us over a lifetime of thinking and writing come across and, if we are lucky, come to know a handful of people (if that) of whom one thinks:  if he or she thinks I am alright, I must at least approximate being alright. They may be one’s friends, of course, but they are not merely so.

Finally, since this book is being published in America and India, what are your thoughts about these two rather difference contexts in which you are intervening? This is clearly not a book of policy recommendations, but you are avidly engaged with public and intellectual life in India. What are some of the points where you see your work as confronting the new political dispensation in India following the recent elections?

I do spend about six weeks in India each year and yes I do try and keep up with Indian politics and occasionally, if asked, write about India in more public spaces than books and learned journals.  About the outcome of the recent elections, I can’t, in a short space, do much more than say that there is nothing to do but to work as hard as we can in the next few years to try and make sure that there is a very different outcome next time.  It has never before been as frustrating for me to be away from India since it is more urgent now than ever before (except perhaps the brief period of ‘the emergency’) to put one’s effort in opposing the government and its policies.

Could you name 5 or 6 books outside your discipline that have influenced your work in recent years?

In no particular order and without too much reflection let me put down the following:

1) Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down
2) Various writings of Marx that I have studied over the last few decades including (what is often excluded by others influenced by Marx), the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
3) Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov
4) M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism
5) Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
6) Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

Akeel Bilgrami
Secularism, Identity, and

“Akeel Bilgrami, a leading analytical philosopher, has over the years also engaged philosophically with contemporary issues of Indian politics. The essays in this volume show him intervening with great analytical skill as well as sagacity in the debates over secularism and identity politics.”—Partha Chatterjee

“It is a rewarding experience to read these thoughtful and penetrating essays, with their wide-ranging, provocative, and challenging ideas and insights, deeply informed and carefully reasoned, and reaching to issues of fundamental concern in the contemporary world.”Noam Chomsky

The jacket photo is of an installation by Manisha Bhattacharya
Bringing clarity to a subject clouded by polemic, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment is a rigorous exploration of how secularism and identity emerged as concepts in different parts of the modern world. At a time when secularist and religious worldviews appear irreconcilable, Akeel Bilgrami strikes out on a path distinctly his own, criticizing secularist proponents and detractors, liberal universalists and multicultural relativists alike.

Those who ground secularism in arguments that aspire to universal reach, Bilgrami argues, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of politics. To those, by contrast, who regard secularism as a mere outgrowth of colonial domination, he offers the possibility of a more conceptually vernacular ground for political secularism. Focusing on the response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Bilgrami asks why Islamic identity has so often been a mobilizing force against liberalism, and he answers the question with diagnostic sympathy, providing a philosophical framework within which the Islamic tradition might overcome the resentments prompted by its colonized past and present.

Turning to Gandhi’s political and religious thought, Bilgrami ponders whether the increasing appeal of religion in many parts of the world reflects a growing disillusionment not with science but with an outlook of detachment around the rise of modern science and capitalism.

AKEEL BILGRAMI is Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and Director, South Asian Institute, Columbia University.
“Carrying on the critical spirit of Edward Said, Bilgrami presents a profoundly original emancipatory genealogy of secularism-and-religion, identity, and enchantment, and, in so doing, of the hidden historical and conceptual connections between them. It is emancipatory in bringing to light within them the possibility of a distinct kind of radical politics today—one that draws on seventeenth-century English radicalism, German romanticism, Marx, and especially Gandhi, among others. In the conclusion he shows the striking affinities of this remarkable achievement to Said’s critical humanism. This is a must-read for anyone who wishes to think differently about these central problems of the present and respond constructively to them.”James Tully

“Bilgrami became known as one of the leading voices on the problem of secularism long before the topic became fashionable in the United States, and has continued to articulate a thorough and rigorous approach to tough questions that are now very widely debated. One has a strong sense of the continuity of position—and more impressively, the continuity of Bilgrami’s recognizable voice, with its combination of seriousness about thinking, the humanity of wide sympathies, and a certain argumentative ferocity—over a period of some twenty years. This book has been eagerly anticipated by a wide interdisciplinary audience as essays from a leading thinker in the field; it will appeal broadly, and its lasting impact is assured.”Michael Warner

Hardback / 412pp / Rs 895 / ISBN 81-7824-385-7 / South Asia rights / Published May 2014
Copublished with Harvard University Press