Nothing democratic about it

(Published in The Hindu, December 01 2015)

If ever we could retard an admirable cause with a mindless application of the principle of boycott, the episode surrounding the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF) offers us a prime example. Even irony has taken a leave of absence over the last few days, as some authors protesting increasing intolerance in India have manifested precisely such intolerance themselves, withdrawing from a literature festival because they do not agree with the views of one of its several directors. The message seems to be that the organisers of literary events must not have political views — or if they do, these must match those of the most vociferous faction of the season’s literary elite.

The chronology of events is as follows. Authors across India, for very valid concerns about the future of this country and of our intellectual diversity, began to return their Sahitya Akademi honours, as they felt the organisation had failed to set itself against growing instances of prejudice and bigotry. What noted writer Nayantara Sahgal started spiralled into a potent national movement, and the best defence ‘the other side’ could marshal was that this was all ‘politically motivated’.

A contrary view

Not every writer — as is how it should be — flocked to this movement. Vikram Sampath, a Sahitya Akademi winner, expressed in writing his disagreement with relinquishing honours. “For me,” he said, “my Sahitya Akademi award is a precious attestation of my work by my own community of writers and intellectuals, and the state of India, not its government. It was not given to me for being a political stooge. The best way to uphold freedom of thought, speech and expression from regimes of all orientations is to write, write, write.” It is a fair position, and Mr. Sampath has been open to debating with those of us who disagree with his stand.

Having made his point, Mr. Sampath, who is a founding director of the Bangalore Literature Festival, returned to planning this year’s edition scheduled for December 5 and 6. The website went up, a list of authors appeared, and everything was on track. In recent days, however, a number of writers — T.K. Dayanand, Arif Raja, O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy — who had at first agreed to speak at the festival decided to withdraw. Mr. Swamy, for instance, said that he is “reluctant to be part of a festival organised by those who are not willing to even pause and examine the anguish of the writers who have returned their awards.” Essentially, Mr. Sampath’s dissent about returning awards has confirmed him as a minion of illiberal forces in the eyes of some invitees to the festival.

It is unusual that a single opinion piece by one director should have been construed as reluctance to ‘pause and examine’ the merits of ‘award wapsi’. On the contrary, in their maiden press release, the BLF had made it clear that discussions on the issue of intolerance would be a key theme at their platform this year. They insisted in response to the subsequent walkout by writers, however, that ‘individuals and particularly writers, including the organisers, are entitled to their opinions in a free country like ours. However, BLF… is neutral and impartial and subscribes to no single ideology or view point.’

Model of public funding

Moreover, the BLF is democratic in its sources of funding. The festival is community-funded and benefactors donate as ‘friends of BLF’ with a cap of a few lakhs that they can contribute. No individual or corporate house, thus, is in a position to dominate, and only the BLF logo has appeared in the background in the past.

But these aspects of the BLF do not matter, it appears, if Mr. Sampath entertains a political position or intellectual view that doesn’t match those of the movement we are witnessing now nationally. I support the movement and have a bone to pick with Mr. Sampath and his stand, but what does this has to do with the platform he is involved with? It is especially difficult to paint him with even a pro-BJP brush (since there are some who feel the BLF is too ‘right wing’) — Mr. Sampath was appointed by the United Progressive Alliance government as director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts for south India, and recently resigned from this position. And now, since a trickle has begun of writers boycotting the BLF because of his personal opinion, he has resigned from directorship of the festival to preserve its larger interests.

It is an unfortunate turn of events when a movement with laudable intentions that has opened up a vigorous discussion during a critical juncture in this country’s history seems to mutate into a monolith — where you are either with the movement or against it. In the case of the BLF, I’m afraid that our distinguished authors, whose ideals and fears younger writers like I share in equal measure, have let us down by proving unequal to the task of providing intelligent dissent and demolishing less sophisticated positions through argument and debate. They appear to celebrate the right to dissent, but to say that this dissent must necessarily be expressed within parameters only they can design and determine is to do a disservice to our own cause. The result will only be, if we stick to such unreasonable exactness, that like so many other instances in our past, this one too will go down as a failed campaign, taken over by the display of personal convictions at the cost of the larger principles of the movement itself.

It is regrettable that Mr. Sampath should have had to resign on account of his personal views, and that this was brought about by knee-jerk reactions on the part of individuals who really ought to have known better. To act impulsively, to hold an entire public event to ransom, and to refuse to engage with those who disagree is hardly setting higher standards for intellectual freedoms in India, no matter how loudly we proclaim our commitment to this cause otherwise.