Indian authors speak out over plan to reissue Narendra Modi exam book

Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy attack Penguin Random House India for putting out book by a prime minister they say has mishandled Covid and persecuted writers

Leading Indian authors Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy have spoken out against Penguin Random House India’s decision to publish and promote a book by Narendra Modi during the country’s coronavirus crisis, with Mishra accusing PRH India of “enlist[ing] in a flailing politician’s propaganda campaign”.

In a letter published in the London Review of Books blog, Mishra wrote to the chief executive of PRH India, Gaurav Shrinagesh, after the publisher announced it would be reissuing Modi’s book Exam Warriors while, in Mishra’s words, “smoke from mass funeral pyres rose across India”. India suffered a world record one-day death toll from Covid-19 on Wednesday – 4,529 – with the overall figure believed to be much higher than the official death toll of 283,248.

Calling Modi “an inspirational leader for the youth”, PRH India describes the 2018 guide as an “inspiring book for students” that will “be a friend in acing exams and facing life”. Advice from Modi includes: “Do not merely dream of becoming a doctor, engineer or lawyer. Think of how best you can make a difference to society and let that ideal guide you”; and: “Proper feedback is one that makes the other person reflect, and not feel repulsed.”

Mishra wrote to Shrinagesh: “I am sure you know of the desperation with which parents and children have been beseeching the government to postpone exams. Nor do I need to tell you of Modi’s recent record in office: the list is long, from his brutal crackdown in Kashmir to his super-spreading election rallies. I am more concerned in this context, since Modi is now a Penguin ‘author’, with his government’s violent persecution of writers and journalists.”

Reporters Without Borders describes India as “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly”.

Mishra said: “As a Penguin author, both in the UK and India, I am appalled that the imprint should put itself, during an extensive slaughter of innocent lives, at the service of Narendra Modi. As Modi’s mouthpiece, PRH seems a very unwelcome home for authors who see his regime as a calamity for India.”

In response, Shrinagesh pointed to the “diverse range of voices” PRH publishes, and to the independence of its editors. “During these difficult times we continue to endeavour to make all our books available to our readers,” he wrote. “We value every author’s views and opinions, as diverse as they may be and very much appreciate your note.”

Pointing to images of Mark Zuckerberg hugging Modi, Mishra told the Guardian that US social media companies have “enabled Hindu supremacism” because India is a lucrative market, and “most Indian newspapers and magazines have been either crushed or co-opted by the Hindu supremacists”.

“Given this bleak situation, PRH and other foreign-affiliated imprints in India have a heavier responsibility for keeping alive a public sphere and the possibility of intellectual and creative life,” he said. “Some of them might decide that they are just another company trying to profit in an ‘emerging’ market, and can’t afford to take a stance against violence and bigotry. Still, it is a step too far in that direction to ballyhoo a figure like Modi in the midst of an extensive carnage partly caused by his arrogance and vanity.”

Roy, who earlier this month issued a heartfelt plea to Modi to “step aside” and let someone else deal with India’s deadly Covid outbreak, said she would “like Modi and all his sayings and books to retreat into a Himalayan cave and never re-emerge”.

She pointed to how Penguin India “humiliated itself” by withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus in 2014, following a lawsuit that accused the University of Chicago professor of “hurt[ing] the religious feelings of millions of Hindus”.

“Publishing Modi’s Exam Warriors is a similar form of self-abasement, made more ridiculous by the unresolved mystery about Modi’s degrees – a BA by correspondence taken at the age of 28 and an MA in ‘Entire Political Science’ from a university in Gujarat that never offered such a course,” said Roy. “Every effort to verify the authenticity of these claims about his degrees that he has made on oath before he stood for the 2014 elections has been blocked by the universities, the election commission and the courts. So we don’t know what (if any) exams this Exam Warrior took.”

Roy said that the Modi regime and its Hindu nationalist supporters had put publishers and literary events under “massive pressure” over the last few years. “Having bent and bullied almost every institution to their will, they now seek the respectability of being ‘mainstream’ authors invited to mainstream events. Many publishers and litfests have succumbed,” she said. “Having said this, I will also say that my own editor at Penguin India has published and stood by all my work, fiction as well as nonfiction. Much of it is a direct attack on Modi and his criminal regime.”

PRH India has been approached for comment by the Guardian.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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