Right-wing book publishing is asserting itself in no uncertain terms

Ankur Pathak, co-founder of Garuda, at their office in Gurugram. Photo: Dalip Kumar
Urban Naxal” has become a popular pejorative label to describe critics of the government today. When Garuda Prakashan commissioned film-maker Vivek Agnihotri in 2018 for his book titled Urban Naxals, the publishing house did not anticipate that it would contribute to the lexicon of political cusswords. But the young startup isn’t complaining.

In its three years, Garuda’s catalogue has included books by the likes of Agnihotri and retired army officer G D Bakshi, both of whom are vociferous defenders of issues that are closely associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on TV and social media.

Garuda is a tiny player in book publishing, an industry dominated by large houses that churn out titles of every ideological stripe. And although its founder and managing director Sankrant Sanu describes Garuda as more cultural than political in its vision, it reflects a growing assertion of right-wing voices in Indian writing.

The focus for Garuda, the publisher claims, is Indic languages and civilisation. Before starting his self-funded publishing business, Sanu, who worked with Microsoft in the US, wrote a book along with two others including Indian-American writer and Indic proponent Rajiv Malhotra.

In the book titled The English Medium Myth (2014), he suggests that studying in one’s mother tongue has better outcomes. Sanu says he found that the poorest nations used colonial languages. “My book takes the economic view rather than a cultural view of language. That was also a seed for Garuda.”

Indic refers to Indo-Aryan, but so far Garuda has mostly published books in English and Hindi. Sanu adds that they plan to put out translations of some of their books into Indian languages outside of the Indic bracket, such as Tamil.

“We need to have a platform to tell our own stories. We have been a storytelling civilisation. I felt we needed to have an alternative space because there was a need for somebody who can unapologetically bring forward a civilisational narrative,” he says. “It’s not based on one religion. If you look at Indian Islam and Christianity there are a lot of syncretic plural views.”

Garuda is a “decolonisation” project, one that involves language and excavating “our own experience”. Sanu adds that it is decolonisation from a framework of thought that is alien to us. “We need to define what our framework is, and then have a dialogue with Western thought,” he says, emphasising that it doesn’t imply that Western thought is bad but such a gaze on India fits everything into “stereotypes like caste atrocities or poverty”.

Garuda Prakashan’s founder Sankrant Sanu with Manoshi Sinha Rawal, the author of Saffron Swords, at the New Delhi World Book Fair this week. Photo: Dalip Kumar
That also becomes a rationale for choosing to publish a book like Urban Naxals, whose premise was to “expose the nexus between an India-wide Maoist terror movement and their supporters in urban centres such as academia and media”. Sanu says: “The book is less political than how the term has come to be used. It’s a personal story. We’d like to create more informed civilisational dialogues, else it becomes a slogan-shouting match.” Agnihotri, whose recent films have been accused of being politically motivated, has remained more in the news for his tirade on social media against dissenters than for his book.

Garuda has commissioned about 20 books so far. These include books on the accession of Jammu and Kashmir, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and an “ex-communist’s manifesto” that extols Narendra Modi.

Some small-time publishers are more extreme, more decidedly majoritarian in their vision. One such group, Agniveer, has published 10 books by IIT-Kanpur faculty member Vashi Mant Sharma, who was in the news after he objected to a protest on campus where Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry was read. The college set up a committee to attend to his complaint that claimed the poem, “Hum Dekhenge”, hurts Hindu sentiments.

Nationalist Hindu-centric writing has catered to a section of readers for much longer than the period that has witnessed the rise of Hindutva politics. The late Purushottam Nagesh Oak is one writer whose revisionist ideas and historical denialism find reiteration among leaders who are part of the current dispensation. The Delhi-based Hindi Sahitya Sadan published his books — titles such as The Taj Mahal Is a Temple Palace indicate their orientation — back in the ‘60s.

Padmesh Dutt, the owner of the publication house, asserts: “We are not linked to Hindu religion, but nationalism. Ninety per cent of the freedom movement was composed of Hindus. Kyunki hum nationalism pe kitaab chhaapte hai, baat Hinduism pe aa jaati hai. (Since we publish books on nationalism, it naturally ends up concerning Hinduism.)”

Dutt’s grandfather, Guru Dutt, began the publishing house in 1953 after moving from Lahore to Delhi during Partition and later authored some of its best-selling books. The third-generation publisher satisfies himself with limited sales, which have increased only marginally in the last five years.

“We will not write against nationalism and Hinduism,” he says, and complains about the trend of Hindu mythology-based writing in English. According to him, writers like Amish (previously known as Amish Tripathi) have portrayed Shiva objectionably, as an intoxicated god.

Booksellers acknowledge a growing focus on right-wing leaders and historical figures or on issues that are central to the ruling alliance. Anuj Bahri, owner of Bahrisons Bookstores in Delhi, says it is understandable to be in favour of the ruling party, and that there has been a spurt in political biographies. But few smaller publishers are successful, as their books get noticed only if and when a larger publisher reprints them.

Hindu mythological and fantasy books have become the fastest growing genre since 2008, but not due to a right-wing party at the helm, says Bahri. “It is due to curiosity among the younger generation, which is hungry for information that is not coming to them through their family or education system.”

Much of right-wing literature, especially under the rubric of spirituality, is not considered overtly political. For instance, the Gorakhpur-based Gita Press is known across the country as a publisher of Hindu religious and spiritual books, such as the Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (2015), points out that the perception of Gita Press as a non-controversial, religious publishing house persists even though it was in fact part of a larger game plan when it was set up in the 1920s. “It proposed or espoused the template of a great Hindu India,” says Mukul.

In the current scenario, among big publishers, too, there is an awareness that readers are interested in looking at multiple perspectives on the Right. “You wouldn’t do it because you have a mission to proselytise. For that you need to be independently funded and agenda-driven,” says Karthika V K, publisher, Westland-Amazon.

Publishers use buyback clauses — which require writers to purchase their own books — to recover expenses. That, however, need not lead to publishing unfiltered propaganda material, a possibility more likely on self-publishing platforms, according to Karthika. “In major publishing houses we are ingrained with the idea that it’s not right to allow that. Even if you are commissioning with a sponsored project in mind, you are taking on books that you believe need to exist and be published.”

She concedes that there have been clearly defined segments like the Left press or feminist press, but the Right has somehow not been granted a similar space. At the same time, even though an entity like the Gita Press was agenda-driven it was not frowned upon.

For now, publishing is booming but book sales remain low. “Diversity obviously takes a hit when sales slow down. But given the amount of space public life has granted to right-wing ideology it also reflects in how publishers find space for them. More and more writers are willing to engage with it. So be it as critique and publicity, submissions and proposals are prolific as writers on both sides of the divide are going at it,” she says.

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