Margaret Atwood at the Jaipur Literature Festival. All rights reserved.The Jaipur Literature Festival passed off peacefully! The formulaic beginning, used for surcharged political rallies in India, is appropriate for this literary meet because of the ongoing furious debate on the freedom of expression and rising intolerance.
For five days, Jaipur saw a large gathering of writers many of whom have been damned as anti-national subversives by the political activists loyal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The campaign against writers began when dozens of them returned their literary awards in protest against violence against writers. One of them had been killed by a mob. A rationalist thinker met the same fate. Another writer felt so disturbed by threats that he “killed” the writer in himself, declaring that he was abandoning his cherished vocation for ever. Some citizens became the victims of prejudices against a particular religious community or caste. Some vigilante groups started dictating what to eat, what to wear and whom to marry.
While reports of violence continued, several political leaders and others denied that there was any intolerance. Those talking of intolerance were charged with sullying India’s image. To utter the word “intolerance” is to get categorised as “anti-Modi”. He or she faced a verbal onslaught and in some cases, physical or financial harm. No one has been spared, not even the most popular film stars. Senior members of Mr. Modi’s ruling party keep hitting out at the writers and warning them to “keep off politics”. The cyber army deployed against the writers uses stronger words. The wave of spontaneous, un-coordinated protests by writers with no shared ideology was seen by the leaders of Mr. Modi’s party as a conspiracy to defame the Government. It was described as “manufactured dissent”.
The wave of spontaneous, un-coordinated protests by writers with no shared ideology was seen by the leaders of Mr. Modi’s party as a conspiracy to defame the Government. It was described as “manufactured dissent”. The writers were called the agents of an opposition party. Some were blamed for not having protested when individual freedom was curtailed in the past during the Congress regime even though they had protested. In every TV discussion, the question “where were you when…?” was raised. A speaker hit back by ridiculing this question. Where were you when Sita was abducted by Ravan, the demon-king, he asked.
The tirade against the protesting writers had gone on for weeks when the Jaipur Literature Festival was held. The speakers belonging to this maligned community must have breathed a sigh of relief that no one obstructed their entry into the festival. The festival was held amid heightened security. The police presence was large. Some entry cards had to have photographs this year. Fortunately, the mischief-mongers who insult writers did not turn up outside the venue. In the festival, no speaker was jeered; no one’s face was painted black. Lovers of literature do not do such things but nothing prevents a determined group to sneak into such events and snoop on their target!
Ironically, it helped that Rajasthan is ruled by Narendra Modi’s own party. The State Government wanted the show to go on and made it clear that it was fully behind the festival. Generally, if the Government gives the right signals, the mischief-mongers can be kept at bay.
The Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ms. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, is far from a typical member of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. Coming from a feudal family and being a public school product, she combines tradition with modernity. As a book lover, she could discuss Lolita or the Gita. She inaugurated the festival after a warm handshake with Margaret Atwood. She declared that she felt privileged to be able to personally greet the Canadian author. For a moment, it seemed as if all recent trespasses by the writers are forgiven. And lest his opponents in the party blame her for hobnobbing with the anti-national elements, she listed the economic benefits of the event that brings shoppers and tourists to Jaipur from all over the world!
The writers may have been pleased even more by the large responsive audiences who applauded attacks on the rising intolerance. One film director who finds his creativity constrained by the fear of mobs and police cases said democracy was a joke and freedom of expression was a joke.
A TV reporter called him brave for making such a daring statement after knowing what two eminent film actors had to go through because of their milder remarks about intolerance. The organisers were fair and had invited even those who would criticise the protesting writers. These included a Hindi film star and a bureaucrat according to whom, by commenting on intolerance, a famous film star had diminished India’s brand image!
But unlike in the TV studios where the anchor incites adversarial debates, in the festival the speakers were willing to listen. Dialogue won over rhetoric. The writers got an opportunity to explain their roles. A Hindi writer said just as birds get the wind of a coming earthquake, writers are able to record advance warnings about the developing fault lines.
Eloquent statements were made about social concerns getting reflected in prose and poetry with reference to a range of protest literature. The Progressive Writers’ Movement generated a lot of literature on the themes of poverty, inequality and oppression that provoke writers. Returning an award in protest is a tradition that was followed by Tagore against the British. One of the writers said apart from expressing their disagreement in words and returning awards, what can they do to fight intolerance? The discussion was timely since powerful political elements are seeking to demolish the credibility of writers.
Surprisingly, this time there was no literary spat. No Hindu God came in for a critical analysis and no one recited the Vedic hymn that questions the Supreme Being’s ability to know everything. Still those engaged in the crusade against writers on behalf of the ruling party should have come to the festival to take notes on the ignoble personal lives of some major English writers. They would have got ammunition. There was enough provocation for a moral vigilante group to disturb some sessions. Much was said in favour of the same-sex relationship. British writer Stephen Fry certainly went back convinced that India is still a tolerant nation because every time he used an unprintable word, the women and men in the audience cheered him. The dirty words were used in a proper context – while speaking on his literary hero -- Oscar Wilde.
Stephen Fry at the Jaipur Literature Festival. All rights reserved.
The literature festival provided some more positive signs. French economist Thomas Piketty who unmasked the true face of Capitalism in his bestseller and warned India against growing economic inequality was treated like a rock star. French economist Thomas Piketty who… warned India against growing economic inequality was treated like a rock star. His two sessions heard complex economic arguments about growth and inequality and from the cheering audiences one could guess which side they are on. The loudest response came to his criticism of the privatisation in the health and education sectors. This may disappoint the economists supporting Mr. Modi. It is said that the Indian middle class does not care about inequality if it grows in the process of development. Those cheering the French economist were young men and women belonging to the middle class.
Prime Minister Modi may have noticed that the literature festival included a discussion on two of his favourite projects: Clean up India and Make in India! Some themes and speakers mystified the purists who sought an answer to the age-old question: What is Literature? But it is all for a good cause. The sponsors make the enjoyment of pure literature on such a massive scale possible. And they expect something in return. The festival casts its net wider and wider in the belief that those who come for one thing may stay on for another. The business model of the festival will be studied as a case study by the management schools. The two writer-directors have been able to yoke together the rival Hindu Goddesses of wealth and wisdom.
One can give only a few glimpses of a festival that runs six simultaneous sessions for five days and is attended by a crowd that can fill the Wembley Stadium. The freedom of speech was just one of the dominant themes but because of it one returns from this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival with the hope that it will not be easy to tamper drastically with the idea of India.