Dr. BR Ambedkar wrote The Annihilation of Caste in 1936 for a meeting of a group of liberal Hindu caste-reformers in Lahore. After reviewing the speech and finding the content too offensive, the conference organisers withdrew the invitation. Dr. Ambedkar himself published copies of the speech which became an immediate classic. MK Gandhi published his refutations in his own paper, which Dr. Ambedkar intensely contested. In January of this year, Navayana re-published The Annihilation of Caste with detailed annotations that have received praise and a long and vocal introduction by Arundhati Roy. Such a publication is meant to bring this significant text back into contemporary discourse, an act of breaking the codes and prejudices of a mainstream publication.
In a recent article in the Outlook, Gautam Bhatia cast the issue of Navayana withdrawing the publication as a problem of free speech, open access to texts and the flow of knowledge. He suggested that Navayana’s withdrawal must trouble the liberals as much as Penguin’s handling of Wendy Doniger’s book did. Bhatia points at the problem of how the publishing industry controls what is read and not read, and how the industry hinders the free flow of texts, creating a culture of self-censorship. Although a valid point, it is only tangential to this context. To also clarify at the outset, the problem is not one of legalities or of constitutionality. The parties involved are private parties and hence the dispute is a contractual one at the most. I, therefore, will suggest recasting this issue as a problem of ethics.