March 28, 2020
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The Morality Of A Lit Fest

The recent incidents at the Bangalore Literature Festival throw up many questions that need addressing…

The Morality Of A Lit Fest

The controversy with the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF) was an accident waiting to happen. It has thrown up questions which many of the privately run literature festivals in India have managed to evade so far. But such evasiveness, intended or not, should get harder to sustain from now on.

First, the sequence of events.

A week ago, two young Kannada writers, Arif Raja and TK Dayanand, who had agreed to participate in this year's BLF (Dec 5-6), apologised to the organisers for not being able to do so. Their brief, gracious letters of withdrawal, expressed concern about an article written by Vikram Sampath, the director of BLF, and a petition endorsed by him. The following day, senior critic and translator, OL Nagabhushan Swamy, also withdrew from the festival, saying that his "heart" was with the two writers whose concerns were "genuine." Nowhere did their brief letters (under 300 words) ask that the Festival be shut down, or its director removed, or that other participants follow suit.

No sooner had this happened, however, reactions in the news and social media started decrying the writers' dignified withdrawal as "boycott," and held them guilty of "intolerance" towards other views. They were accused of "forcing" Sampath to resign as the festival's director when that had actually happened at the behest of the BLF Committee. The extensive media support made him appear the victim of intolerant writers who had brought down "a community supported" event like the BLF (this last claim is also bizarre since the BLF website lists corporate firms, the Government of Karnataka and private philanthropists as its patrons).

It is a travesty that the media tried and judged the dissenting writers without any curiosity about the contents of their letters of withdrawal. Saying that the return of awards was only a minor form of protest compared with literary protests seen in the past, Raja added that returning an award did not make someone a "progressive" just as holding on to it did not make anyone a "reactionary." While writers, however, were free to return their awards if they wished, he said, it was wrong for Sampath to deny them this freedom or doubt the purity of their motives. 

While fully respecting the organiser's right to his views, Dayanand wrote, he could not go along with them as they served the establishment. After noting his own views on how writers ought to be sensitive to social upheavals, his letter ended with, "Let only love remain."

Since Sampath clarified, after resigning as the Festival's Director, that he stood by all of his writings, his article and petition under discussion are still relevant to look through.

Sampath's article (Oct 15, 2015, The Mint) accuses the writers returning their Sahitya Akademi award of "barking up a wrong tree," which is strange as the latter's reason was the literary academy's silence over the murder of Dr. Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi awardee and a former member of its General Council. It also wonders why those writers had not protested when the Emergency and riots had occurred in the past. This claim is factually incorrect and, worse, suspects the moral integrity of the dissenting writers.

The petition (Nov 15, 2015) Sampath endorsed along with several other individuals against the many academics in India and abroad who had urged the government to ensure the safety of its citizens at a time when "arguments are met not with counter arguments but with bullets," last month is objectionable on multiple grounds. It coolly labels a variety of reputed scholars in the country as "leftist" "for want of a better word." Moreover, the list of accusations it makes about their scholarly work shows complete ignorance. The seven "abusive and unscholarly practices" of these scholars include their emphasis on caste as a system of exclusion, and not of integration and their "refusal" to admit "the brutality of many Muslim rulers."

Not only are these claims untrue – for example, the caste system has mostly been studied as a system of occupational interdependence and the academic interest in its exclusionary dimensions is relatively recent – they are pushing the familiar right wing view that the caste system was contained within a monolithic Hinduism. Similarly, with violence. Violence in Indian history in general is under-studied. We know about kings who built big empires but without knowing much about the violence involved in all of that work. Our uninterest in confronting the violence in the past is an intellectual question. Saying that the violence of only Hindu rulers, and not their Muslim counterparts, is studied, is the familiar politics of communalising history. The political affiliations of such views cannot be in doubt.

Following the controversy, the BLF committee has only reiterated that it is a forum open to all views without addressing the substantive concerns of the dissenting writers.

Literature festivals need to have a well worked out idea of the intellectual values and literary community they seek to promote. If these senses of an aim exist, the conversational parameters become clear for a forum where participants share their concerns and clarify their differences in political vision or achieve an understanding of other points of view. Disagreements tied to different normative and aesthetic ideals, which can throw up newer questions and advance our understanding can be hosted here as long as they do not violate or subvert the ends that the festival seeks to promote.
If a literary festival's imagination of diversity is guided by the Indian Constitution, or by thinkers like Tagore and Gandhi, participants who embrace violence as a means of achieving their political aims, or who reject the ideals of diversity, cannot be participants these fora. Their views cannot be tolerated there.

Sampath's endorsement of a petition espousing divisive communal aims cannot be seen as just a view. It is a view that furthers violent actions against minority communities. It is a view that disallows diversity

The loud demands that the dissenting writers share their views at the festival, and not withdraw from it, have not shown sensitivity to why their experience might have given them a greater clarity about being at an event headed by someone with affinities to the Hindu right. Raja, Dayanand and Swamy have presented a valuable opportunity for the BLF organisers, and indeed, others, to carefully reflect on what they wish to achieve through their literary festivals.
These writers were accused of closing debate by "boycotting" the festival. On the contrary, they have opened a debate, a much wider debate than the festival would have allowed, and posed a set of hard questions to India which is, to borrow the words of Michael Sandel, the philosopher, in search for a public philosophy.

Chandan Gowda is Professor of Sociology, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

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