Denied stalls, membership: Dalit publishers allege discrimination in Chennai Book Fair

From being denied membership in BAPASI – the publishers association that organises the fair – to being made to wait until the last minute for stall confirmation, Dalit-led publishers in Chennai make several grave allegations.
Representative image of the Chennai Book Fair
Representative image of the Chennai Book Fair

Dalit-led publishers alleged discriminatory behaviour by the organisers of the Chennai Book Fair through a statement released on December 13 by the Tamil Nadu Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department (AD&TW). According to the statement, there is caste-based discrimination in how stalls are alloted at the annual book fair organised by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI) and regarding how membership to the association is allocated. The book fair, held at Chennai’s YMCA grounds, draws huge crowds every year in January and/or February. The statement refers to a complaint by Pa Amutharasan, who runs the publishing house Thadagam. According to Amutharasan, BAPASI favours only its own members while allotting stalls, charging them a considerably lower fee. In the statement, Amutharasan also alleges that despite repeated applications for membership, BAPASI has denied him the same, never giving a reason for dismissal of the application in writing. 

Speaking to TNM, Amutharasan alleged that BAPASI favours its members in allotment of stalls at the Chennai fair and regarding notifications about fairs in other districts, and that when publications such as his Thadagam apply for membership, they are not accepted and are given “no written communication on what grounds the application has not been accepted. Neither is there any clarity about the criteria for granting membership.” Amutharasan added that the process of even securing a stall each year at the book fair is a gruelling task. “In 2020, I had to ask others to write letters on my behalf, and beseech the organisers before I got a stall. It wasn’t until the last moment that I got a stall. The next year, anticipating that I would have to do all this again, I planned well in advance. This year, I wasn’t given a stall at all,” he said.

Vasugi Baskar, editor of Neelam Publications, founded by director Pa Ranjith, made similar allegations while speaking to TNM. “We won’t know until the last minute whether we have a stall or not. While other publishers are in the process of setting up stalls, we are still trying to find out if we will be at the book fair or not. It makes it extremely difficult to organise promotional materials like standees or posters. Even after our stall is confirmed, BAPASI gives us trouble over posters or art works, particularly when they are of Dr BR Ambedkar. There is discrimination even after we’ve secured a place at the fair,” he stated. Vasugi also said that Neelam’s application for membership into BAPASI has not been accepted, but no written intimation has been given on what grounds their application was rejected, adding that this lack of transparency makes their work harder. 

To Dalit-led publishing houses like Neelam or Thadagam, the book fair is an ideological space. “We break even in terms of profits by the end of the book fair,” Vasugi said, adding, “but that’s not why we're there. People who come to the fair seek out our stall. For any books on marginalised communities, readers know whom to come to. Books are a political medium, the fair has a certain reach and that is also why we need to be there to introduce progressive politics to new readers.”

Amutharasan too emphasised the importance of the books Thadagam brings out. Thadagam’s translation of Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s book Le Mariage de plaisir from the French to Tamil won them the Romain Rolland Book Prize awarded by the Government of France. The award for the translation, titled Ullasa Thirumanam, was also the reason Thadagam was invited to the Paris Book Fair 2021 as guests of honour by the French Institute in India. “Participating at the Paris Book Fair was one of the biggest opportunities Tamil publishers have got, but here in Chennai, I still have to struggle to get a stall at the city’s book fair,” Amutharasan said. 

The publisher also pointed out that BAPASI conducts the fair with the help of funds given by the state government. “The Chief Minister says that theirs is an inclusive government. That means it includes people across caste, gender, or any other identity. If BAPASI is taking state government funds, should it not reflect that inclusivity? Aren’t these funds, after all, coming from the people’s money?” 

Amutharasan further said that the membership fee has been set at rupees 50,000. “How many publishers can afford it? It is an elitist amount of money. It is gatekeeping,” he alleged. Journalist-turned-publisher Ival Bharathi, who runs the women-centric Naam Publication, agreed with this. She said, “That is not an amount that a small publication like mine can afford. Ideally, there should be a concession for women publishers.” Ival Bharathi also added that a book close to her heart that she is bringing out next year is the autobiography of Udhaya Keerthy, the 22-year-old woman who has almost finished her training to become an astronaut. “The kind of training they go through takes a great deal of mental and physical stamina. Udhaya is from a small village in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district. Her family has an extremely modest income. Despite that she has passed all her tests so far. She just has one left to go. Her autobiography would be an eyeopener for other  women,” the publisher said.

When asked about the allegations, Murugan, BAPASI’s secretary, denied any discriminatory behaviour on the association’s part, claiming that that complaints were based on grudges. “We cannot give stalls to everyone. There is a space constraint that we have to work within. With smaller publishers who may have brought out only about ten to twenty books, how can we give them stalls that can hold at least 150 books? We have brought in a rack-system instead. We offer them those racks within the fair grounds but these publishers insist on getting stalls.”

In response to the complaints about the membership process and the fee structure, Murugan agreed that Rs 50, 000 had been collected from 87 applicants two years ago as ‘donations’. “Our committee will take a call on who can be granted membership. And we will return the Rs 50,000 to everyone whose application has been rejected.” Regarding the criteria for selection, Murugan told TNM, “There are several, if you ask me suddenly I can’t recall them. But one is that the publisher should have brought out at least a 100 books. That assures us that they are capable of surviving in the publishing industry. Also the publishing company should have filed their IT returns.” 

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