The ongoing Chennai Book Fair 2020 " a 12-day event organised by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI) " has run into rough weather after its launch on 9 January. Now in its 43rd edition, the CBF has seen participating writers and BAPASI embroiled in a row after senior journalist V Anbazhagan was prevented from displaying an "anti-government" book in his rented stall, and had a police complaint filed against him in this regard.
On Monday, writer Su Venkatesan " also a CPI(M) MP from Madurai " refused to speak on his assigned subject (the Keeladi excavation) as a mark of protest. Condemning BAPASI's action, he said, "If the Chennai Book Fair has no space for anti- government books, then you should also be banning cookery books. The central government has a problem with onions and the state with salt."
Anbazhagan was arrested on 12 January, after BAPASI secretary SK Murugan filed a complaint stating that the former had threatened him when asked to vacate the stall. The book at the centre of the furor reportedly highlights corruption in the Chennai Corporation, with Anbazhagan seemingly putting together RTI replies to detail alleged misappropriation of funds by the ruling AIADMK government.
In its official communication ordering the ouster of Anbazhagan's publishing house Makkal Seithi Maiyam from the Chennai Book Fair, BAPASI stated that by selling books against the "government and its policies, the publication was going against the rules laid down by BAPASI and hence banned from having a stall in the fair". However, the rules " as mentioned on BAPASI's website " only state that books banned by the government, and pirated versions, were not allowed in stalls.
Opposition leaders including DMK's MK Stalin and VCK's Thol Thirumavalavan called Anbazhagan's arrest a clampdown on freedom of expression. The Chennai Press Club's joint secretary Bharathi Thamizhan deemed the complaint against Anbazhagan "false". On Tuesday, a section of Tamil writers tied black ribbons around their mouths to protest Anbazhagan's arrest and urged BAPASI to withdraw its complaint against the journalist, besides restoring his stall.
BAPASI's decision to expel Makkal Seithi Maiyam from the Chennai Book Fair has caused some dissent within its own ranks. BAPASI vice president K Nagarajan said that while the rule about not allowing banned books was agreeable to all, "it is unacceptable that books [construed as being] against the government should not be displayed in the fair". Nagarajan further noted that "while taking such decisions, BAPASI should have convened the executive committee".
However, BAPASI president RS Shanmugam said that the book fair was dependent on the government and therefore, such actions were unavoidable. "The growth of the Chennai Book Fair, after its launch in 1976, would not have been possible without the support of the state. Of course, there are many stalls that still sell anti-government books but Makkal Seithi Maiyam had just that [the controversial book] and nothing else," Shanmugam was quoted as saying.
This year, while inaugurating the fair, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami announced an annual grant of Rs 75 lakhs for BAPASI.
This edition of the festival saw another unrelated controversy when the state's BJP spokesperson Narayanan Thirupathy demanded that books about/based on the LTTE should be removed from stalls " an idea that didn't go down well with many publishers.
For publishers big and small, the Chennai Book Fair is an opportunity to gain some attention for their new titles. BAPASI has around 400 members who are allotted stalls in the book fair. For a slightly higher price, the stalls are also allotted to non-members. This time alone, BAPASI's Chennai Book Fair has about 750 stalls and is expected to see a footfall of 10-15 lakhs in two weeks. The book fair will end on 21 January.