In many ways, the framework of constitutional rights in the modern world have not substantially changed since the late 18th century. Constitutional or ‘Fundamental;’ rights are those which prevent the State from taking coercive action against Individuals. Rights could not normally be claimed against private individuals; it was only in the form of Non-discrimination through the Civil Rights Act in the Untied States and Article 17 in India that private individuals were also prevented from discrimination based on race and caste respectively. Private Individuals are not otherwise ever held to the standards of constitutional rights, and rightly so.
With this context, the recent cancellation of a book by Bloomsbury seems to be nothing out of the ordinary. A private party cancelled a book based on the online outrage on the book’s supposed content. A purely private affair, one might imagine. And yes, legally speaking, no constitutional rights have been violated. The right guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a), “The right to freedom of speech and expression” only applies when it has been violated by the State. Private parties have no responsibility to publish any manuscript. It is completely at their discretion whether or not they publish. At maximum, some contractual provisions would have been violated between the author(s) and the publisher. However, the cancellation still rubs us the wrong way, it feels more than unethical to cancel a book which had already been accepted for publication, printed and set to release. Here, the question is not just the legality of whether or not Freedom of Expression has been curtailed legally, but has it been practically curtailed?
The book whose publication was cancelled by Bloomsbury
Likely not, considering the authors have found alternate publishers. However, what this exposes is the dangers of deplatforming, a trend that has taken hold in the United States and seems to be making an entry into India as well. The content of the books had already been sent and accepted by the publishers, but had not been seen or accessed by the persons who decided to outrage on the supposed content of the book based on who was invited to the launch event. The publisher is in the eye of the storm with some authors withdrawing their books from publication or pledging not to submit their books to the house. This episode will most likely force the publishers to pay a heavy price. The sort of hyper partisan cancellation culture will likely take stronger roots in coming years; the consequences are not positive for the ‘culture of Freedom of Expression’ in India. Time and time again, it has been seen that Free speech is not free; it has never been free and it never will be. There will always be consequences to one’s freedoms.
Notes: Do read “On Free Speech” and “An Examination of two scenarios” and a third one for Swarajya Magazine: “The Rights and wrongs of free speech” . It is advised that the articles be read for a clearer picture on the Freedom of Expression.
Special Thanks to Aishwarya Ajayan for her editing.