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A lit-fest expresses India’s genes

The five-day festival passed off “peacefully”, without the violent assertion of the right to be offended.

Shashi Tharoor at the Jaipur Literary Festival, 2015. Shashi Tharoor at the Jaipur Literary Festival, 2015. Jim Ankan Deka/Demotix. All rights reserved.Had President Obama come to the Jaipur Literature Festival, he might have spared India his parting advice on religious tolerance and inter-faith harmony. In many of its 200 sessions that attracted some 255,000 footfalls, the festival showcased India’s national DNA of inter-faith harmony. Deafening applause greeted the repeated condemnation of religious intolerance and every reference to India’s syncretic tradition.

Of course, the loud cheers at the festival, like Obama’s lecture on religious tolerance, did have a context. Such applause would have been unnecessary in the past because despite occasional sectarian violence, a secular India was taken for granted and left unchallenged. Of late, the voices of religious hatred are beginning to be heard louder. More ominously, these come from the members of the new prime minister’s large and growing political family.

They shout in a triumphant assertive tone. Their anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu statements led to the consolidation of the Hindu votes which in turn contributed to Narendra Modi’s victorious march from Gujarat to New Delhi. They hail him as “the first Hindu Prime Minister of India”. They make outrageous pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim statements while the otherwise eloquent prime minister maintains a studied silence.

They sensed victory when Penguin, under threat by a Hindu organisation, withdrew and pulped the remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s scholarly book on Hinduism.

A local Hindu leader recently threatened a Tamil writer P. Murugan for insulting Hinduism through writing. Murugan declared his author-self dead, saying he would write no more. A so-called offensive excerpt from Murugan’s book was read out at the festival and the audience endorsed the defiance of the cultural terrorists. In 2012, four writers read out passages from The Satanic Verses to rebuff an Indian Muslim extremist group whose threat made Salman Rushdie cancel his participation in the festival.

The five-day Jaipur Literature Festival this year was held during a bout of national anxiety about the future of the secular and liberal India. It passed off “peacefully” despite providing a hundred excuses to one community or the other for storming its gates, complaining of their hurt psyche or violently asserting their right to be offended!

The festival began with a famous vocalist enthralling the audience with the fusion of a Christian hymn and a devotional song by India’s Muslim saint-poet Kabir. She went on to sing a song by a Sufi poet of Iran. Nothing unusual in the Indian tradition but in the current political climate, it acquired an added significance. The singer pointedly mentioned that her team happens to include Muslims and Christians.

In the opening statement, one of the organisers made a powerful plea for continuing the tradition of religious tolerance and diversity of thought and culture. The traditional debate on the final day concluded with a vociferous assertion in favour of secularism, religious tolerance and inter-communal harmony and understanding.

The topic of culture and politics gave an opportunity to some panelists to warn the Hindu nationalists and the Government against the newly launched religious conversion campaigns and against infusing the Hindutva agenda into the school syllabus and institutions related to history writing and film censorship.

During the five days, the speakers exercised freedom of expression, ignoring the religious sensibility of one faith or another. They got away unhurt. British writer Hanif Kureishi talked of sex and pornography wearing a T-shirt having the image of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction. He displayed it by taking off his coat despite the harsh winter. Then he went on to call upon the people to fuck in order to defeat political Islam. No militant Hindu or a mad mullah went after him the next day.

In a session on the deadly sins, the Hindu God of Creation Brahma was described as a sinner because of his lust. The eminent Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi also highlighted the lustful conduct of Lord Indra, the Rain God. No one pelted stones at him but the next day the Rain God responded with anger by drenching the festival tents with untimely showers!

In another session, Lord Ram, the favourite God of the Hindu nationalists ruling the country, was criticised. Ram’s conduct as a husband was questioned. It was stated that Sita, after being freed from the clutches of Ravan, refused to return to Ayodhya with Ram but decided to disappear into the earth. It was also pointed out that Ram obeyed his father but disobeyed his mother.

The anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat were recalled with poignancy by a Jewish woman writer from Ahmedabad, the city that has remained divided on the Hindu-Muslim lines since then. The present Prime Minister was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Incidentally, India is one country where the tiny community of Jews has never faced any problem. Another literary session was about the Parsees, the Zoroastrians, who came to a welcoming India fleeing religious persecution in Iran and who have lived peaceably since then contributing immensely to their adopted country.

The theme of writing “The Other” figured in a couple of sessions that highlighted the fact that even writers have not been free of racial or other prejudices. There were European writers and historians who glorified the Christian Crusades and the wars. One of the books discussed was The Pike-Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War.

“Faith and Terror”

Words harm but swords are more lethal. “Faith and Terror” turned out to be a popular theme of several sessions. The festival made one ponder over the tragedies enacted by those killing in the name of their God.

The Hindu extremists cannot complain because other religions were not spared. The Europeans cannot complain because the Americans were not spared either. America’s ongoing war against terror invited the charge of hypocrisy and incompetence and of reviving the memory of the Christian Crusades! One session was devoted to The Devil in the Grove: Racism, Murder and Rape in the Deep South.

The recent and ongoing tragedies were narrated in sessions such as “The Buddhas of Bamiyan”, “Descent into Chaos: Pakistan on the Brink” and “Sri Lanka: Through the Looking Glass”. In three other sessions, the accused hauled up were not the mad Mullahs of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan or the violent Buddhist priests of Sri Lanka but the Christian fundamentalists of yore and the Europeans who indulged in religious persecution. The latter theme was highlighted in Jessie Childs’s book God’s Traitors: Religious Terrorism in Elizabethan England and in The First Crusade by Peter Frankopan.

The presence of V. S. Naipaul notwithstanding, the festival heard how the people of Islamic faith enriched Indian arts, crafts and literature. An entire session was devoted to “Jagat Guru: The Syncretic World of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shahi II of Bijapur”.

An eminent Sanskrit scholar said Muslims and Christians also enriched India’s classical language. He recited a Sanskrit poem written by Rahim, a Muslim minister in the court of Akbar. The poet, as a devotee, wonders what he could offer to Lord Krishna who possesses the Kingdom of the entire creation. He offers the Lord his heart since Krishna’s own heart has been stolen by His beloved Radha.

At the festival, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the former President of India, got a rapturous welcome and the loudest applause. The elderly writer of inspiring books was mobbed like a rock star, with the screaming young admirers almost causing a stampede. Dr Kalam happens to be Muslim. Its symbolism, like the discussions at the festival could not have been lost on the foreign participants who had arrived after reading about the resurgence of militant Hinduism.

Perhaps they understood that whatever is true about India, the opposite also happens to be true.

About the author

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul  His two e-books The Twain and A Parliamentary Affair form part of The Englandia Quartet.


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