Charade Begets Charade: Indian Liberals And Literature Festivals

Charade Begets Charade: Indian Liberals And Literature Festivals

by Vikram Sampath - Sunday, January 29, 2017 03:54 PM IST

Charade Begets Charade: Indian Liberals And Literature Festivals The Jaipur Literature Festival. (
  • The fact that a BLF or a JLF will debar the right-wing voices will not make them so scared that they will quit office and let you rule the roost.

    This “ideology” for the good or bad, has a far larger and relevant electoral audience today, many times more than the audiences of all these literature festivals of India put together.

    This is a reality, a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed.

Even as I sit down to write this piece, I have in front of me the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “intolerance” as “unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differs from one’s own.” I cannot but help conceal my smug smile when I read reports after reports on the plethora of online websites that peddle everything from news to views and opinions.

They are replete with heart-wrenching descriptions from the bleeding-heart “liberals”, crying hoarse about how the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has degraded itself into a “festival of compromise”, caving in “to the right, teaching writers to be craven”, “The Flight of the Liberals” and numerous such apocalyptic headlines. The reason? Well, nothing more lame than two ideologues of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) making a debut appearance at this decade-old festival, which has come to symbolise everything that is both good and evil about Indian literature. And when I compare these reactions and op-eds to the dictionary meaning of “intolerance”, it could not have fit in better.

The JLF organisers are not innocent either. In 10 years, they have hardly invited many speakers with a purported Indian right-wing tilt barring the tokenism of a Swapan Dasgupta here and there, or more recently a Rajiv Malhotra. The RSS was not formed in 2015 for it to dawn upon them that they needed speakers from that stable. They now do realise that the right-wing is in the ascendant, politically, both in the state where JLF is held and at the Centre, and if funds need to flow in, they would need to feature people of that dispensation. So the disclaimer right at the beginning is that this piece is in no way an apology for the organisers of the JLF.

From personal experiences of being the founder-director of the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF), I remember the shock and self-righteousness with which some of the organisers of the JLF (who have been great personal friends, though not sure after this piece!) who were esteemed guests at my festival had asked me after seeing the speaker list that included names such as Rajiv Malhotra, T V Mohandas Pai, Arun Shourie, Madhu Kishwar, Swapan Dasgupta, Tavleen Singh, Tejasvi Surya, Anuj Dhar, Sambit Patra, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Malavika Avinash and others with: “My God! This just seems so wrong! Why are these people on the list, doesn't it tarnish the image of the festival and make it so rightist?”

A close accomplice of theirs, a self-proclaimed expert and translator of Hindu epics, smirked nonchalantly: “It must be the pressure of the corporate sponsors! Who is the title sponsor of your festival?” Of course the translator was rendered speechless when informed that the BLF had no corporate or media sponsors and was the ONLY (I repeat, only) festival to work on a largely community-funded model along with state government sponsorship (which in this case was a Congress-ruled state government). My counter to their questions was that the people they had issues with are popular, have a readership or fan-base, they have a stated point of view, which deserves to be heard and debated by those who disagree, and if necessary torn to shreds if found unworthy.

As an organiser, I am not entitled to be either an arbiter or a gate-keeper of what should and should not be featured. This was 2014 by when the colour of the government at the Centre had already changed. The country had voted (oh yes, please keep reminding me that only 31 per cent did) decisively in favour of any particular political party, giving it an absolute majority in Parliament after two decades.

The fact that a BLF or JLF will debar these voices will not make them so scared that they will quit office and let you rule the roost. This “ideology” for the good or bad, has a far larger and relevant electoral audience today, many times more than the audiences of all these literature festivals of India put together. This is a reality, a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed. You can counter it by censoring them altogether or by engaging them in discussion and debate to understand how their minds work and why it works the way it does.

For every supposed “right-wing” voice at the BLF, there were equal or more voices opposing them as well, from the late U R Ananthamurthy, late Dr M M Kalburgi, Girish Karnad, Ramachandra Guha, Shashi Deshpande, Rajmohan Gandhi, Shubha Mudgal, Dinesh Gundu Rao, Ramyaa, Ashutosh, Hartosh Singh Bal, Ajoy Bose, Siddharth Bhatia, Kingshuk Nag, Ashok Vajpeyi, K Satchidanandan, Keki Daruwala to name just a few. Their numbers were naturally more, because acceptably the right-wing woefully lacks “intellectuals” of the kinds that we know of in our country who can simply get on stage and extemporaneously wax eloquent on their “Idea of India.”

Interestingly, Rajiv Malhotra whose presence and talk was vehemently opposed by a JLF organiser got a prompt invitation to the JLF immediately after his appearance in Bangalore. Obviously, there was something good about what he said that made him get invited. On a completely different note, during the dinner that followed a raucous debate on freedom of speech, a highly eminent worthy and a mascot of the “liberals” had gotten so drunk on the free alcohol that was served that there was almost a chance of coming to blows with Arun Shourie and Rajiv Malhotra, who sat across the table and looked absolutely petrified of being physically assaulted! Alcohol served at someone else’s expense is after all, always, such an enticement, especially for a literary fertile mind! A mind, which did not forget in all its drunkenness, to dutifully plug its own next generation as a “great upcoming writer and a pity that he is not included in your current list”, even as he almost tottered away in pieces, as all of us watched in horror and sympathy.

These bizarre anecdotes are stuff that I can base my memoirs on, when I am in the last stages of my life, and when my belief that several of these “literary gods and divas” were after all ordinary mortals with feet of clay, horrible insecurities, Himalayan egos, and extremely bigoted views, gets solidified. But coming back to the recent hullabaloo about JLF or the backlash that BLF faced in 2015 in the backdrop of my criticism of the award wapsi political campaign, these incidents underscore a fundamental problem. The inability or the opacity of the minds of those professing to call themselves “liberals” (sadly made into almost a cuss-word on social media) to accommodate any opinion contrarian to their own fossilised ones.

I had long held that literature festivals have become cabals and giant echo chambers, where all men and women belonging to the “faith” gather for their annual pilgrimage to reaffirm their allegiances and scream hoarse about the “other”, who is never represented or if at all, then rather meekly as a token symbol, to counter the aggression of views. I pat your back, you pat mine and we all end up becoming a large, happy caravan of travelling nomads, recycling the same trash in festival after festival. Is this the concept of a vibrant democracy or is this how debates need to be fashioned? Every speaker of the “faith” would of course rave and rant and stick their pins to an invisible giant voodoo doll of Narendra Modi or the RSS/Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or whoever else they consider their ideological foe, though by evening all of it would have been happily forgotten in the idyllic drunken revelry and casual hook-ups which are just-so-common-place in these grand literary gatherings!

So did the world end the day after Manmohan Vaidya and Dattatreya Hosabale of the RSS spoke at the JLF podium? Thankfully and predictably, no! I am sure a vast section of Indians are opposed to some of the views held by these gentlemen, just as they are of the views of Sitaram Yechury and M A Baby of the CPI(M) who were also invitees, but “boycotted” in protest. But that is the whole point of a democracy: of hearing views that are 180 degrees separated from yours and being able to tear into that argument intellectually. This is ironic in a country that has always reveled in intellectual debates over boycotts. If Adi Shankaracharya or his followers had been similarly offended by the contrarian views of philosopher and scholar Mandana Mishra and boycotted him – the historical debate went on for months between the two – the distilling of the Mimamsa philosophy would never have occurred.

Does merely giving these gentlemen the microphone for an hour render everything that they say as truth? Is the hallowed “Idea of India” so weak? Can’t the audience who oppose their views demolish their arguments in public, shame them if they wish through their nuanced counter-arguments and bring them to book? Is that not how an intellectually vibrant democracy needs to function?

The roots of intellectual fascism and untouchability stem from the philosophy of boycott: I will not engage in even a conversation with you because your views do not match mine and I will speak only in a gathering where my fellow comrades pat my back and dance merrily as my cheer-leaders. That to me is fascism in its purest and undiluted form. This was my quibble with that sinister and festering campaign that decided to “boycott” BLF for my supposed “fascist” leanings due to an article written against award wapasi. It was an open invitation from my end to them all to come on stage and tear me to shreds through the power of their intellect. But sadly, this is not a virtue that many “liberals” in India possess. They will cower and then utilise the collective intellectual horse-power of their stable to unleash the most vicious and opinionated campaign against the renegade.

But Vaidya and Hosabale have nothing to do with literature, it is argued. Of course they do not and I do not hold the slightest of brief for these gentlemen whom I have neither heard nor heard of. But one of the largest crowds I saw the year I attended JLF was for Rahul Dravid, who when I last checked, has not yet won a Pulitzer for a stellar book he wrote! I wonder what books have been written by Shabana Azmi, Oprah Winfrey, Sharmila Tagore, Imtiaz Ali, Rahul Bose, Virat Kohli and several other “show-stopper celebrities” from Bollywood, entertainment and sports who are routine furniture at JLF and why there has never been a dissenting voice against that.

Are these festivals not bandied more as a conclave of ideas, rather than of purist literature? Oh, I forget - ideas that match yours, not the ones contrarian! Did we forget the famous saying, usually wrongly attributed to Voltaire: “I will disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it”. Is this philosophy compatible with that of boycott? As much as one might try to glamourise it philosophically by drawing illogical parallels to a Rabindranath Tagore or Shivarama Karanth!

And when all else fails, the last nail in the coffin is of course, blame the sponsor. ZEE is the villain, not the poor “liberal” organisers we are told. Playing devil’s advocate for my friends in the JLF organising committee, I would argue that in a country where culture finds the last of priorities for everyone – from government to corporates to civil society at large, it would need only a magic wand to materialise large events of this scale.

Of course if the author community and journalists writing online op-eds decide to fund the festivals themselves, it might just prove to be a truly wonderful gesture that can safeguard freedom of speech in India. But how does one expect that from a group that, by and large (with several eminent and notable exceptions) sucks on like a leech to freebies? Being an organiser myself I have watched with dismay and disbelief how demanding and banal some of them can be. From tantrums about which panel they would want to be placed (“do-you-know-who-Iam?” “I am cancelling my coming if I am put on stage with that insignificant X on the panel as it undermines my own market value,” “Would you treat Y the way you are treating me?”), business class tickets, free alcohol that needs to flow like a gurgling river on all the days of the festival, expensive five and seven star hotel venues and rooms, gala and extravagant dinners and lunches, airport transfers, ground management, room service that the organisers are forced to foot to even absolutely unimaginable cheap tricks of making ISD calls from the hotel rooms that (no prizes for guessing) organisers bear – the budgets are truly gigantic. The day authors decide to “boycott” all these freebies and come and engage with their readers just for the sheer love of ideas, literature, liberty, equality and fraternity, I vow to god, I will stop writing! Audiences of course would not shell out a penny and would want it to be a non-ticketed event. After all, who pays for culture in India, come on!

So, unless there is a mechanism to create a National Arts Fund like in the United Kingdom to promote the arts that brings in public and private partnerships and this body doles out grants that can get audited, it makes zero sense to complain about sponsorships. Where were the dissenting voices when a gutka and panmasala brand was a chief sponsor of JLF? Don't we know that gutka and panmasala are responsible for some of the largest number of mortalities of mouth and throat cancer in India?

Moreover if the ideology of a ZEE is a problem, why has it never been a problem to attend festivals organised by The Hindu, which has a very stated and definite ideological bias in its reportage and opinion columns? The numerous Times of India literature festivals are also run on the money of the group, which again has a well-defined stance on many issues. So where do we draw the line of ideologically driven media houses influencing festival programming?

If my award wapsi coming-out-of-the-closet moment against “liberals” was bad enough for me to stop receiving invites from several “important” go-to literature festivals in India, I am sure this piece will play the last nail in the coffin. But I would be glad to never attend any of these farcical shows any more, as I honestly feel they have lasted their purpose and it is now perhaps time to move on to something that truly matters – to literature!

I cannot but help recall an agonising moment at the BLF in 2015. It was the time of the intense anguish that many of us in the literary community genuinely felt after the brutal murder of Dr M M Kalburgi. The incident, as we know, fuelled a well-intentioned campaign that later sadly got hijacked by the political contours of award wapsi. Of course we have all forgotten Kalburgi now and not one writer who threw back their awards has led a march to the Chief Minister of Karnataka demanding why the assassins have not been brought to book even after a year-and-a-half of the crime.

Be that as it may, but at the BLF a famous literary critic sat in the author’s lounge drowning himself in several glasses of beer. With him a bunch of “liberal” types sat huddled and bemoaned the murder, sang eulogies to Kalburgi’s literary genius, and rued how India had been totally Talibanised under Modi. After several rants about the sad state of the country and its horrific future, the literary critic then realised that it was morally right to saunter out to catch at least a few lines of a session that was currently underway. After all, they were there for a “festival of ideas” and not to drink. On stage, was a large cut-out of Kalburgi, whom the BLF organisers had rightly decided to pay tributes to. My drunken friend reached out to me and whispered innocently in my ear: “Whose photograph is that on stage? Someone important?” The cruel irony of that moment, sums up for me, the charade that Indian literature festivals and the “liberals” (should we just rename them as “socialites” and not abuse that word?) peddling them have unfortunately become.

Dr. Vikram Sampath is an author/historian/political analyst and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, with an upcoming biography ‘ Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past’.

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