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The right to condemn?

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on April 25, 2014

Choppy waters: Author Joe D'Cruz, who has written about coastal communities, now finds himself in the eye of a storm. Photo: M Prabhu   -  M Prabhu

Author Joe D'Cruz. Photo: S.S. Kumar   -  SS Kumar

Joe D’Cruz’s endorsement of Narendra Modi cost him a translation and spurred a debate on freedom of expression

In the war between fascism and liberalism, Joe D’Cruz, 51, Sahitya Academy award-winner (2013) for his epic novel Korkai, seems to be the latest casualty. Cruz is a vocal supporter of the coastal people of southern Tamil Nadu and takes pride in being a part of its vibrant subaltern landscape.

His maiden novel published in 2005, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Rimmed World) escalated him to star status in contemporary Tamil literature. Navayana, an Ambedkarite publishing house, committed to publishing a translation of D’Cruz’s work. But then on April 9, D’Cruz posted a status update on Facebook, supporting Narendra Modi. Steeped in liberal and left-of-centre politics and reeling under the recent controversy of withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s works as a result of a Hindutva campaign, the publishing comunity balked. Navayana made a statement withdrawing D’Cruz’s books. And even as the freedom of speech comments were being typed on Facebook and Twitter, the translator V Geetha also pulled out from the project. She found it difficult, she said, to separate “the work from the man” and couldn’t accept D’Cruz’s support for Modi, “the principal architect of the Gujarat pogrom” and could not bring herself to have her translation published.

The issue has brought to fore the legal right versus the moral right to condemn and censure, and raised questions whether one can support political or cultural views that are at variance from the personal. For literature offers several examples of men of letters whose political colourings have not outweighed their artistic and literary merits. Gunter Grass, for example, was drafted in his teens into the Waffen SS, that did not club him with the Nazis or diminish the power of his literary output.

Writer and filmmaker Shuddhabrata Sengupta reacted to “unreflective leftists’ authoritarianism” and said that by that logic, “We will have to stop reading TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Carl Schmitt, Yukio Mishima because they supported Fascism, and Pablo Neruda because he was an apologist for a mass murderer like Stalin”.

Critics pointed out that Navayana has a history of publishing writers like Slavoj Zizek, whose “politics is quite loathsome”, as Sengupta puts it, or Namdeo Dhasal, who has been vocal in his support for the Shiv Sena.

Following such criticism Navayana’s publisher, S Anand, has, in a statement, said that the publication of D’Cruz’s work is in “abeyance”. However, the prickly question of withdrawing a legal contract in the face of personal, but differing opinion remains unresolved.

Legally, the publisher cannot use the personal views of the author as a reason to rescind the contract. “The agreement between publisher and author has clauses that relate particularly to the manuscript. While the final authority to go ahead and publish a manuscript is with the publishing house, the author’s opinion on any matter or person cannot be a reason for us to withdraw publication,” says Rachna Pratap, senior contract executive, Penguin.

For now the matter stays wobbly and unresolved. If Geetha stays firm in her decision to not translate the book, Navayana too can throw its hands up.

The real issue though is about the lack of tolerance on either side of the political divide. “What kind of precedent will this set, if we all become trapped in our rigidities?” asks author and critic Nilanjana Roy. Nobody has the answer to that.

>Click here to read the interview with author Joe D’Cruz

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

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Published on April 25, 2014
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