By Mosarrap H. Khan
What does a literature festival actually do? Does it increase the number of book sales? Does it encourage reading culture? Does it fix our moral compass as participants and readers of literature?
These are questions of value and will be difficult to quantify. Much before we had anything like a mushrooming of literary festivals across India, Kerala and Bengal – just to give two examples – have always had a solid reading culture. I can certainly vouch for Bengal. During my sister’s wedding, we received more than hundred books as gifts. I am not sure if literary festivals have really added anything to our reading culture.
Moreover, the reading culture or the general interest in books has nothing to do with literary festivals. Historically, it’s the emergence of a middle class bourgeois in any society that has acted as the motor for enhancing a general reading culture. Take the case of Europe. The invention of printing, coupled with the emergence of a bourgeois class rapidly created a reading public.
Jaipur Literature Festival’s nexus with fascism
A couple of days ago, The Indian Express published a short report about the RSS debut at the JLF. It wrote:
Indicating its growing clout, the RSS is set to make its debut at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Termed as the “greatest literary show on the earth”, the festival will have two top pracharaks as participant speakers: Akhil Bharatiya prachar pramukh Manmohan Vaidya and sahsarkaryavah Dattatreya Hosabale. It coincides with another development. Some of the most prominent writers of the ‘award wapasi’ campaign that took place around the intolerance debate – including Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and K Satchidanandan, who have been JLF regulars – have apparently not been invited this year.
Is the clout of the RSS at the JLF anything new? Anyone who has been following the activities of the festival knows that the festival has been taking support from people close to the RSS for a long time. The head of the primary festival sponsor, ZEE Group, Subhash Chandra, is a prominent RSS sympathizer with a background in the RSS and a Rajya Sabha (the Upper House) member of parliament (MP), supported by the BJP. In 2016, Chandra released his biography at the festival, making it a capstone event. The Jaipur Literature Festival has been on the payroll of the right and has been cultivating the right for a long time. The invitation to two RSS pracharaks to the 2017 edition is a logical progression of the festival directors, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple’s keenness to be on the ‘right’ side of power. (Now ask yourself, which side of power literature should be?)
Since popular memory is short, let us remind ourselves the year 2016 has been disastrous for Indian Dalits and minorities, particularly Muslims. Mohammad Akhlaq was killed by the right wing goons on the suspicion of having beef in his fridge. In addition, a number of Muslim cattle traders have been lynched. The Hyderabad University scholar, Rohith Vemula was driven to the point of desperation where he had to take his own life. The exclusivist and fascist ideology of the RSS, which has emboldened the right wing, were behind these deaths and the general repression of the Dalits and minorities in India.
The year 2016 has also seen one of the largest student mobilizations in independent India, when students at IIT Chennai, University of Hyderabad, and Jawaharlal Nehru University protested against the killing of Rohith and the general fascist agenda of the current government at the centre. It’s Subhash Chandra’s ZEE news channel that instigated the Delhi police by circulating a doctored video that led to the arrest of JNU students. It’s the same ZEE group that’s the principal sponsor of the JLF.
How did the organizers of the JLF respond to the general popular uprisings in India in 2016? By not inviting those writers – Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and K Satchidanandan – who returned their awards as a protest against the general majoritarian terror let loose in the country by the RSS ideology and the current government.
Despite the nexus between the JLF and the tainted corporate houses, there is no dearth of apologists – more shockingly, from the so-called liberals – who die to defend the overt and covert ceding of space to a fascist organization like the RSS. The same liberals who cry 24/7 that Modi has accepted money from the Sahara Group are completely silent over the sources of sponsorship/funding for the JLF. Have you heard any of the liberal writers (who regularly take part in the festival) complaining about ZEE group’s sponsorship of the festival?
On the contrary, Salil Tripathi came up with an absurd excuse for not boycotting JLF earlier this year, when the festivals organizers accepted sponsorship from the Vedanta group – accused of illegal mining – for organizing their London edition. Tripathi’s logic is that if the writers can critique wrongdoing by corporate entities from the festival platform, then it’s okay to accept funding from whoever the organizers want. That is, if the writers could talk of environmental degradation from the platform of the JLF, London, it is alright to be funded by the Vendanta, the rapacious corporate group ravaging tribal life in Orissa. Someone should tell Tripathi, the corporates look for visibility. When the organizers accept their funding, the action of the corporate house is practically legitimized. It hardly matters to a corporate house what few writers said by way of a critique. How about the ethics of funding? How about taking a conscious stance not to associate with the rapacious and opportunist corporate houses like Vedanta and ZEE? Do the writers and organizers have the moral-ethical courage to say NO to these sponsors? We know festivals cost money. But who asked the organizers to create a festival that itself runs like a corporate house. Why can’t the JLF organize a smaller festival without large corporate funders?
The festival co-director, Namita Gokhale, predictably tried to defend the decision of inviting the RSS speakers by citing the following reason:
The RSS has been something of a closed organisation for years. We only hear about them but never directly from them. I feel there’s a need to listen to different points of view. [Tthe decision to host the RSS speakers was taken out of] an intellectual curiosity [in sync with the] spirit of the festival [which aims to promote plurality]. The polarisation of ideas cannot be so rigid that we don’t listen to all sides.
Really? Who’s Gokhale fooling here? The RSS views haven’t been heard? It is an organization which has been spewing venom continuously against the minorities and Dalits for as long as I can remember. It’s the same organization whose members are regularly invited by television channels on different programs. The chief of the organization has used the national television to broadcast his speech to the whole nation. Gokhale would still want us to believe that we have never heard “directly from them”. Instead of this blatant hypocrisy, why don’t the organizers say that they want to be (and has always been) on the right side of power. Would they have invited the radical cleric who issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie during the 2012 edition of the festival? How about inviting the cleric and listening to his side of the story in the name of ‘plurality’?
If the apologists want to be a complete sell-out to power and money, that’s fine. But it would be better for them not to justify it.
Why is speaking out difficult?
Now the question arises, despite knowing the nefarious nexus between big money, power, and the JLF, why is it difficult to speak out? There are various reasons.
First, like most things in India, literary career also depends on a patronage system. A select group of coterie could promote or destroy someone’s literary career. Speaking out is tricky. It could even block one’s chance of ever getting published. If you have noticed closely, you will see Indian publishing industry is feudal and oligarchic.
Second, the invitation to festivals will dry up, which denotes lack of exposure for writers desperate to promote their work.
Third, writers sell cheap. By throwing money at them, you can buy most writers’ silence. Forget about speaking out.
Fourth, publishers and book sellers invest money in the festival to reap a return.
Fifth, the nexus of upper caste-White privilege. Let me explain more.
Upper Caste-White privilege
One doesn’t require rocket science to understand who are the producers and consumers of literature (especially, Anglophone) in India. It’s predominantly upper caste in India, Whites living in India, and Whites from outside India. Go through the speakers list of the JLF and you can see the minuscule number of minority, Dalit, and tribal speakers on the list (Almost reflective of the number of Muslim MPs in the current Indian Parliament).
Since Indian liberalism is basically an upper caste normalization and rationalization of minority and Dalit subordination, the Indian writers are all too eager to keep their privilege going in these festivals. To add to that, Indian upper caste collaboration with White privilege has a historical legacy since the colonial times. Why would writers belonging to these two groups bother about the RSS style of fascism gaining legitimacy in India?
The Jaipur Literary Festival may have the numbers on its side. But as a reader and researcher of literature, I understand that literature is not about the numbers. The JLF might be able to sidestep our criticism as a minor inconvenience, but we stand our ground. The JLF is devoid of any moral compass, supposedly one of the tasks of literature.
If you want to resist the fascist forces in the country, BOYCOTT Jaipur Literature Festival. If you value Dalit and minority lives in India, BOYCOTT Jaipur Literature Festival. If you don’t want a literary festival over the dead bodies of Muhammad Akhlaq and Rohith Vemula, BOYCOTT Jaipur Literature Festival.
Mosarrap H. Khan is a founding-editor of Café Dissensus.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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