Should we criticise the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival for inviting two functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to this year’s edition of the annual festival? Murmurs in the literary circles seem to suggest that the organisers of JLF succumbed to pressure from the right wing. A mere look at the list of speakers and programmes makes it clear that there are a fair number of liberal and left-leaning individuals among the speakers. Why, even the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sita Ram Yechuri, is in that list. So a balance appears to have been struck.
Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta was right when he lambasted those opposing space for the right wingers. When you do so, he argued, it is the liberal space that gets shrunk. It was none other than the much-hated, anti-right-wing Prime Minister Nehru who rejected a suggestion by the editor of the weekly Blitz, RK Karanjia, to proscribe the RSS as it was opposed to the constitutional values of India. Banning ideological groups would only drove them underground where they could assume a dangerously subversive power, Nehru felt. Even a majoritarian ideology like that of the RSS needs to be fought out in the open.
Moreover, now it is not the prerogative of the liberal or the left to have a dialogue with the right. It is in fact the right-wing, which now has the authority to decide whether the obsolete beings known as liberals or leftists would be allowed in public spaces or not. Even those who earlier championed liberal democratic values seem to have started to examine what they say, keeping in view the sensitivity of the right-wing masters of the day.
We see it being done in the universities where your position should depend upon the recognition of your work by your peers in academia. But increasingly we find heads of academic institutions performing a balancing act by constantly creating occasions to give platform to the so-called “intellectuals” of the RSS. So, one should not be surprised or upset that the JLF is inviting such intellectuals belonging to the RSS.
Of course, the right wing voices should not be shunned. They need to be made part of a civil dialogue or conversation. One is only struck by the timing of this realisation by the organisers of the JLF. The RSS was always there but for the last 10 years of its existence, it didn’t qualify as a potential participant of the JLF. But a little reflection should show that the real problem is not the presence of the RSS ideologues at the event but the main sponsor of the JLF, whose name is prefixed to that of the festival. Perhaps some of the finest minds from India and abroad who are attending the event should be reminded that they would be hosted by those very people who were instrumental in vehemently mobilising and instigating lynch mobs against some of their peers.
Let us not forget the murderous campaign last January against young student activists of Jawaharlal Nehru University. So effective was the vilification that the then president of the university students union, Kanahaiya Kumar, was almost killed in an attack on him by a group of lawyers in Delhi. In fact, so pervasive were the hate-campaigns, led by the very television news channel whose name is prefixed to the JLF, that they have made Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders permanently vulnerable to attack by people who have been persuaded by the propaganda that these young students are “anti-national”.
It didn’t stop there. Nivedita Menon, a respected professor and feminist writer, was targeted by the same news channel, inciting violence against her. Gauhar Raza, an Urdu poet and scientist at the government-funded Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, was declared a member of “Afzal-lover gang”, a reference to Afzal Guru, the convict hanged for his role in the 2001 Parliament attacks. These were not isolated attacks, as the tirade against these writers and scholars continued on the channel for many days .
People who have not thus been targeted would perhaps say that such attacks need not be taken seriously. They fail to realise that for those whose faces have been displayed on television prominently for days, and described as friends of terrorists or anti-nationals, it is matter of life and death. They are under mortal threat.
That we should leave our peers and young out in the cold and enjoy the company of hate-mongers is heartbreaking. It is nobody’s argument that merely by attending the event, those doing so become advocates of hate-ideology. But they do turn into their legitimisers.
Besides, it is not only about the insecurity of our own, those we meet in seminars and book readings. There is another section of our society, made friendless in India by the RSS. The channel, which would be hosting our writers and intellectuals in Jaipur, has been at the forefront of a propaganda war against Muslims. Its blatantly false reporting about Kairana in Western Utter Pradesh is only one such example. It has portrayed Muslims as a threatening presence for Hindus in Kairana and in Dhulagargh in West Bengal.
Or consider how this channel handled the 2015 case in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, when 50-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a mob because it was rumoured that his family had been eating beef. Writers, artists and scientists protested the killing and the rise of intolerance, which embarrassed the government and the party in power. But these very writers were attacked as being anti-national by the channel which is the patron of the celebration of creativity in Jaipur.
Unfreedom and fear
The organisers of the JLF were urged to come out of the patronage of the Muslim haters and propagandists of hate. It has been reported that they did try to look for alternative sponsors but failed to find them. It is being argued that the JLF, having evolved into a unique institution, could not have afforded discontinuity. It is important to continue and sustain it and therefore one should understand the compulsion of the organisers who, it is claimed, want to build a literary culture in this country where literature is not celebrated publicly.
We are asked to be considerate to the organisers who have dedicated to the task of building a literary culture in India and abroad. If you want to do things on this scale, you need to make some compromises.But do we need such a massive celebration? It is the gigantic scale that necessitates the participation of corporations, the head of one of India’s top management institutions told this writer. The ethical universe of these corporations, he said, is defined by a very old and simple word: profit. They cannot be expected to be proponents of freedom and democracy. The Indian corporate lords have not an exemplary record in this regard.
The last two and half years have been torturous for the minorities for whom this country has turned into an open prison. We, in universities and elsewhere, too have lived with a feeling of unfreedom and fear. This feeling has brought us closer to understanding what the minorities face. Our normal existence has been interrupted. It is a zombie-culture we are made part of. Therefore, it is not surprising to see – in fact, it is difficult to miss – the strategic mind behind the theme of the JLF, which is Bhakti.
The selection of the theme brings to mind something Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Times of extreme oppression are usually times when there is much talk about high and lofty matters. At such times it takes courage to write of low and ignoble matters.”
In India 2017, we need this courage as badly as oxygen.
- First published in Scroll, January, 2017