Ethical Responsibilities

Pankaj Mishra

In recent weeks, as smoke from mass funeral pyres rose across India, Penguin Random House India cranked up the publicity machinery for their most famous ‘author’, Narendra Modi. The cruelty and callousness of powerful men have been at the centre of many spirited recent debates within publishing houses across Europe and America. Norton withdrew its bestselling biography of Philip Roth after sexual abuse claims against its author, Blake Bailey, came to light. In France, Gallimard pulled all the books by one of their most cherished authors, Gabriel Matzneff. Most recently, Jonathan Karp, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, has been engaged in a vigorous conversation with his staff over plans to publish a book by Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s white supremacist consigliere. In an open letter, staff accused him of ‘legitimising bigotry’.

It’s fair to say that Karp, who dropped a planned book by the Republican senator Josh Hawley after the assault on the US Capitol in January, and has promised never to publish Donald Trump, is engaged in a difficult manoeuvre: to redefine, after several decades in which the pursuit of profit appeared the supreme good, the ethical responsibilities of publishers. As a recent headline in the New Republic put it, ‘What does book publishing stand for?’

This is an especially urgent question in India, where the mainstream media have earned the epithet ‘North Korean’ for their devotion to Modi, and even social media companies based in Silicon Valley have assisted the Hindu nationalist assault on minorities and dissenters.

In this context, I was curious to know if the decision by Penguin Random House India to publish and promote Modi had been preceded by any internal discussion about the company’s role in defending the moral and intellectual values of their society. Certainly, Modi is an author like no other with his bloodstained and globally recognised record as chief Hindu supremacist. My correspondence with the CEO of Penguin Random House India appears below. His response, or non-response, exemplifies a pattern of obfuscation and lack of responsibility that was seen initially in all the cases mentioned above, and has compelled me to make this exchange public.

Dear Gaurav Shrinagesh,

I hope you are well. I am writing because I came across last week, in the midst of the unfolding disaster in India, some extensive media coverage for PRH’s reissue of Narendra Modi’s Exam Warriors. Quoting from a press release issued by your office, reports describe the book as a ‘wholesome and inspirational guide’

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. The media organisation, Reporters without Borders, is not exaggerating when it describes India as one of ‘the most dangerous countries in the world’ for people who write and publish for a living.

Publishers with international owners and affiliations are relatively immune to the government’s coercive tactics. And yet PRH has effectively chosen, in this bleak moment, to enlist in a flailing politician’s propaganda campaign by publishing and promoting Exam Warriors.

This publishing decision begs some large questions about how PRH perceives its role within the present political conjuncture? Is it planning to publish more works by members of the current regime?

As you may know, Penguin books were instrumental in the 1930s in alerting the reading public to the dangers of racial-ethnic supremacism. There was never any question of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, publishing the proponents of explicitly malign ideologies for the sake of ‘balance’ and ‘diversity.’

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. I look forward to hearing from you about the editorial process that led to this publishing decision and whether any conversations are taking place internally about Penguin’s ethical responsibilities. Certainly, as Modi’s mouthpiece, PRH seems a very unwelcome home for authors who see his regime as a calamity for India.

Pankaj Mishra

Dear Pankaj,

Thank you for your email. I hope you and your loved ones are safe in these very difficult times.

As you know, Penguin has been in India for over 30 years now and we publish a diverse range of voices across genres- children’s, young adult fiction and non-fiction, literary fiction, romance, thrillers, memoirs, biographies, self-help, business, wellness, to name a few.

I lead a team of talented publishers and editors who make independent publishing decisions ably backed by our strong sales and marketing teams. This decentralized, independent structure enables autonomous publishing decisions as is true for all of Penguin Random House companies worldwide. During these difficult times we continue to endeavour to make all our books available to our readers. We value every author’s views and opinions, as diverse as they may be and very much appreciate your note.

My best,


  • 18 May 2021 at 6:37am
    neddy says:
    I read the short blurb on the book Exam Warriors courtesy of the link provided by the author of this blog. It didn't read, to me, as if the book is Mein Kampf in a different language, or a trumpet call to hatred and bigotry. Mr Modi may very well be a monster as the author implies, I'm not in a position to judge, but does that mean Penguin should cancel his book? Do the sins of Blake Bailey justify the cancellation of his biography of Philip Roth? Should beneficiaries of Bill Gates' charity give back their ill gotten gains? Should I and everyone else stop using Microsoft products, or never again watch Harvey Weinstein films? Who are these modern censors, and what is the end result - a new Inquisition based on a new ideology?

    • 18 May 2021 at 3:39pm
      J.P. Loo says: @ neddy
      The purpose of the book is not, directly, to convince children to go out and burn down their Muslim neighbours’ homes and shops. It has two functions.

      The first is to convey upon Modi, the BJP, and the Sangh Parivar a sort of middle class and studious respectability. These people are implicated in an awful lot of violence, as Mishra notes. They need distractions: development, anti-corruption, ludicrous competition with Pakistan, etc. But they also need to shed the image that personally they are violent and uncouth, and that’s where Exam Warriors helps.

      The second is to help to construct a personality cult around Modi personally. Unlike Congress, the BJP has a long tradition of collective leadership. The BJP is far more resilient when defeated, and once one controls for the allure independence gave Congress, far more politically successful. Modi does not have undisputed control of his party. There are holdovers—mostly not in government, but in various related party and Sangh organisations—from the Vajpayee era, when Hindutva was tempered by a sort of healthy pragmatism that dulled (though left entirely intact) violent anti-Muslim impulses. There are independent-minded people, like Subramanian Swamy, who before joining the BJP wrote of its dangers extensively in Outlook Magazine. There are opportunist defectors from other parties. A personality cult makes dislodging Modi, as he dislodged Vajpayee, harder. In the wings wait fellow ministers (there are whispers about Nitin Gadkari, for a start) and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adyinath—perhaps even more crude and violent a man than the Modi-(Amit) Shah (Home Minister) duo in whom all the powers of the centre have been vested.

      What dangers follow? On respectability: a lot can be said about Congress, but in its later years it has been far too inept to mount anything like Modi’s assault on the constitution. Making the BJP respectable was crucial to earning some of the votes necessary. And on the question of a personality cult, the centralisation of power in the hands of Modi and Shah is one reason for the inept response to the pandemic. Even Pakistan seems to be doing better—without India’s extensive pharmaceutical industry. Exam Warriors, whilst it seems perfectly innocuous, is, I suspect, anything but. Unlike some of the examples you cite, it’s also complete tosh: separate the art from the artist, and one would never publish the resultant ‘art’.

    • 18 May 2021 at 5:49pm
      J.P. Loo says: @ J.P. Loo
      A correction: Swamy wrote of the RSS’s plans to capture power through, inter alia, a BJP electoral victory in Frontline, not Outlook (

  • 18 May 2021 at 9:20pm
    Prasant Banerjee says:
    The important point here is that the re-issue of the book (ghost-written for all I know ) shall put in fresh argument in support of the author to being as far as possible from the reality of his current anti-poor and pro-rich image in India as a leader the Hindu right.

  • 19 May 2021 at 4:56am
    Charbb says:
    Mishra refers to "India, where the mainstream media have earned the epithet ‘North Korean’ for their devotion to Modi".

    This is a strange claim. I am a daily reader of the main Indian newspapers and would not bother to read them if Mishra's characterisation were accurate. I challenge him or anyone else to peruse the leading Indian newspapers such as "The Indian Express', "The Hindu", "The Hindustan Times, "The Times of India", "The telegraph", or "The Statesman" on any day they please and for as many days as they please. They will find them featuring many articles severely critical of Modi.

    In "The Indian Express', regular commentators are P Chidambaram, a leader of the opposition Congress Party, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Christophe Jaffrelot, and numerous others who are caustic critics of Modi. One of the editors of the paper is married to the leader of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist). "The Hindu" is well known to be pro-Communist.

    What leads Mishra to make such a misleading claim?

  • 19 May 2021 at 5:03am
    Charbb says:
    The leading Indian newspapers, "The Indian Express', "The Hindu", "The Hindustan Times, "The Times of India", "The Telegraph", or "The Statesman" are all available on the web. Most of them have no paywall. I invite any reader here to check the worth of Mishra's claim that the mainstream Indian media is uncritical of Modi. Many of Mishra's readers will be un informed about India. he has a duty not to mislead so recklessly.

    • 19 May 2021 at 7:46am
      Rashmita Sunkara says: @ Charbb
      Surely when Mishra is referring to "mainstream media", he does not mean English newspapers. The most read newspaper in India is the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, whose readership far exceeds the most read English newspaper The Times of India. The Indian Readership Survey conducted in 2019 lists The Times of India as 9th in the list, preceded by far more popular regional newspapers.
      Indeed, one must also keep in mind the high level of viewership of news broadcasting channels to ascertain how most Indians get their news. The ownership of several popular news channels raises serious concerns. For example, Republic TV is owned by Arnab Goswami and RSS BJP member Rajiv Chandrashekar, India TV is owned by Rajat Sharma (member of ABVP), News 24 is owned by Anurradha Prasad (sister of BJP minister Ravi Shankar Prasad), Sudharshan News owned by Suresh Chavanke (office bearer of ABVP, member of RSS)..

      The investigations done by Cobrapost unearthed that numerous major Indian media groups were willing to accept money to plug polarizing Hindu nationalist ideas as news in exchange for money. In its sting operation, Cobrapost stated that it approached the Times Group – the publisher of The Times of India, the India Today group, the Hindustan Times group, the Zee group, the New Indian Express group and other media houses – where it offered a payment of up to ₹500 crore (US$70 million) in cash to publish stories on Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita to first indirectly and later directly promote Hindutva ideology, communal and political gains.

  • 19 May 2021 at 5:08am
    Charbb says:
    It should be noted that the opposition Congress Party is the only ruling party that imposed a reign of terror in India, arrested and tortured hundreds of thousands of critics of the regime, and suspended the constitution. This happened under Indira Gandhi's "Emergency" in 1975-77.

    The Congress also carried out a huge pogrom against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 which killed thousands.

    • 19 May 2021 at 10:51am
      EnoahBallard says: @ Charbb
      Hey Charbb, okay, thank you. Now list the crimes committed by the BJP in the past - and those that are currently ongoing. For the sake of diversity and balance, please.

  • 19 May 2021 at 6:15pm
    Vivek Iyer says:
    Though Pankaj Mishra (or Arundhati Roy for that matter) did not come out of the Left establishment in India, he arrived at Leftists positions familiar to older people by his own process of self-education. However, the Left- after a false dawn under UPA 1- has disappeared completely save in Kerala where however the C.M describes himself as the Deng Xiaoping of India. How is it that Mishra's sacred cows- which were the Indian mainstream's sacred cows in the Sixties- are now considered a mark of deracination and a sure sign that their promoter left India long ago? One answer is that the Indian Left looked to some foreign authority figure to enforce its pieties. Mishra is writing to the Indian editor of a foreign MNC because he thinks the foreigner has a duty to protect the values of an Indian Left which has run away from that country. The editor, who actually lives in India, takes pleasure in pointing out that the West is Capitalist. Editors do matter but Marketing and Sales Departments matter even more. There may be a small market for people like Mishra and Roy, but there is also a market for David Icke and for Horror and Romance. Globalized Carpet has no problem with niche markets for Theologies and Ideologies of the most recondite and unpopular type. But a niche market is merely a market. The fact that it provides a living to one or two people does not mean that those people are taken at their own valuation as Prophets or Gurus.
    Why is Modi so unassailable in India? How is it that even where his party is defeated locally- as happened in Kejriwal's Delhi and Mamta's Bengal- it gains at the Center? Capitalism provides the answer. Modi has no competition as National leader. Till the Opposition parties can find a rival candidate for the top job, Modi will continue to dominate. The Democrats were able to overcome their 'circular firing squad' and get behind Biden. Sadly, in the UK as in India, no alternative to the present P.M commands widespread support.

  • 19 May 2021 at 6:20pm
    Vivek Iyer says:
    The book's purpose is to promote the RSS (Modi's parent organization) model of education which emphasizes team work and character building rather than individual success through cramming for exams.

    The wider context is a dysfunctional Higher Educational system in which poorer people gain credentials without increasing their productivity or employability whereas those from English speaking families can get well paid jobs even absent any higher qualifications. 'Exam warriors' are doomed to defeat unless they are already 'winners' because of their social background.

  • 20 May 2021 at 9:26am
    R Gandhari says:
    Your comment " government’s violent persecution of writers and journalists" falls rather flat at a time when the national and international media is saturated with demeaning, intrusive, intimate images of Indian corpses on funeral pyres, of dying patients gasping for breath, of distressing and intimate hospital bedside scenes from India. No country in Europe -- and few in Asia -- would grant that level of media freedom.

    Journalists such as Ms. Rana Ayyub, whose heinous allegations against Modi have been debunked by the highest court in the land, continue to launch vicious written attacks against Modi whilst comfortably living in India, with neither fear nor censorship.

    Your request is a request for censorship, grounded on an allegation of censorship. Oh the irony!

    • 22 May 2021 at 4:57pm
      Rodney says: @ R Gandhari

    • 26 May 2021 at 3:54pm
      R Gandhari says: @ Rodney
      Your link cites the example of restrictions on reporting from Kashmir, placed at the risk of inciting violence in a region at intense threat of terrorist activity.

      Please note the law and its use in the UK:

      " The Broadcasting Code contains various rules, including:
      prohibiting the broadcast of materials likely to incite crime or disorder;

      ...There have been instances where the government used licensing conditions to prohibit the voices of specific members of a political group from being broadcast across the UK during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The aim of this was to deny terrorists “the oxygen of publicity”and it was deemed in the public interest to issue such a ban. "

  • 24 May 2021 at 10:34am
    Charbb says:
    Rashmita Sunkar:

    You and others claiming that India is a land of a cowed media - Mishra goes so far as to liken it to North Korea - should know that Prime Minister Modi has always been notorious for refusing to give press conferences in India - because he knows the media will give him a very tough ride.

    So that settles the issue. Writers like Mishra should be more careful with the truth when they are writing on India for foreign audiences which are unlikely to be well informed on the country.

  • 24 May 2021 at 10:41am
    Charbb says:

    Prime Minister Modi has always been notorious for refusing to give press conferences in India - because he knows the media will give him a very tough ride.

    That settles Mishra's claim that with its emasculated media India is another North Korea.

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