For 10 years, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) stood for something.
When Salman Rushdie pulled out of JLF 2012, four authors — Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil and Ruchira Joshi — read out portions of Satanic Verses at the festival. Since the book was banned, this was illegal. And the four had to scram soon after to evade arrest.
JLF is also where, in 2016, Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy thrust her middle-finger in the air and raged, “F***, Modi!” because the Prime Minister was providing General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt provisional aid. She received much applause — even though one could argue that her understanding of conditional aid was limited. It didn’t matter. She was braving controversy and saying difficult things in difficult times. For JLF’s audience, this was enough.
And in 2017, when Taslima Nasreen made a surprise visit to the litfest to speak about her life as a Muslim refugee, a group of protesters collected outside the venue to condemn her “denigration of Islam”. But Nasreen continued undeterred.
It’s happened a lot over JLF’s decade-long career. The festival has suffered at the hands of political forces that have tried to hold it hostage. But its speakers and participants have always fought back. Through its symbolism or by celebrating dissent. Through its choice of delegates, its commitment to discourse, or simply by never taking it lying down.
With space for nuance shrinking, the literary festival provided an oasis.
And so, within its first decade, JLF spawned more festivals like itself — the Times and Tata Literature Festivals in Mumbai, the Delhi Literature Festival, the Kolkata Literary Meet, and The Hindu Literature Festival in Chennai. And those are just the top-billed ones. These new festivals provided space not only for discourse, but also dissent. You could say things that you couldn’t on prime-time television.
But all that changed when the Karni Sena came to town.
JLF 2018 began on January 25 under the shadow of Karni Sena vandalism and attacks on civilians across seven States. The provocation was the release of the Bollywood movie Padmaavat , which, the Karni Sena alleged, was insulting to its caste pride. On the preceding evening, there was an attack on a school bus on the Delhi-Jaipur highway (the one many delegates took to arrive at the festival). The festival also received threats, specifically directed to speakers Javed Akhtar, Prasoon Joshi (head of Central Board of Film Certification) and journalist Kota Neelima. Only Neelima eventually showed up.
The entrance of Diggi Palace (the unchanged venue all these years) sported a long yellow banner with a photo of Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, captured mid-laughter. “Come, let’s make a new Rajasthan”, it says. (The poster was sponsored by Zee News, also the primary sponsor of the festival.)
A series of banners inside declare her the “BEST CM of the Year” — this, courtesy the Centre for Development by Advanced Computing, run by the State’s BJP-led government, as a recognition for creating the online portal Bhamashah, which functions much like the country’s unique identification authority Aadhaar.
And after all this fanfare, Raje, a JLF veteran, did not show up on day one. She was busy campaigning for the by-elections for the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats, and an assembly seat in Mandalgarh. Sachin Pilot, her rival from the Congress, is snapping close at her heels, staking his political strength at the altar of the three seats.
There was political virtue in Raje’s absence from the litfest and her silence over the Shri Rajput Karni Sena and its caste-driven violence.
Raje’s no-show proved to be someone else’s gain. Specifically, Shashi Tharoor’s — he was the only speaker to attract an audience that matched Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s and Soha Ali Khan’s.
On Saturday, January 27, Tharoor had a whopping five sessions, plus multiple interactions with the media. No other speaker managed this. But Tharoor is a political veteran, used to hectic political campaigning. And this was just that.
Across four sessions, he talked about his new book, Why I Am a Hindu . A challenge to Hindutva, in it he showcases an alternative, less militant form of Hinduism. (Though, like Hindutva, his Hinduism too manages to ignore the failings of the caste system).
He also talked some more about his Oxford speech that sought an apology from the British for colonial plundering, positioning himself as the provider of a kinder, less radical form of nationalism.
“How such a wonderfully capricious faith, so open, so liberal... can be reduced by some into a badge of identity akin to that of the British football hooligans, I don’t know, but I don’t want any part of it,” he said.
He launched Ashwin Sanghi’s book Keepers of Kalachakra . (Last year, Sanghi had actress Kajol launch his earlier book. Kajol didn’t appear to have read it, but she did stress several times that she has “600-700 books and a huge library”.) “Sir, please be kind on me,” Sanghi implored Tharoor, trying to work up some charm quotient, and the latter laughed generously.
Five sessions later, Tharoor was still not done. He was the toast of Penguin’s lavish party at the Rajmahal Palace, where he was driven up in a vintage car, and did whiskey shots with anyone who asked.
Stamping his success, comedian Mallika Dua declared that Tharoor was her “favourite JLF intellectual”.
Prasoon Joshi did not show up, in order “that the dignity of the event does not get compromised or discomfort caused either to the organisers, fellow writers or the attendees”, as he put it.
Raje eventually showed up on Day five, after her campaigning ended and several hours into voting. By then, Pilot had already appeared at a session called ‘Dance of Democracy’. By late afternoon, it was clear that there had been only 30 per cent voting at the booths. The low turnout was good news for the incumbent party.
An hour before Raje’s arrival, dozens of children in their school blazers gathered near the entrance, each holding a single red rose. One member of the organising contingent was heard telling another, “She’s very fond of this festival, you know.”
Raje finally arrived, but instead of heading to the front lawns, where her security detail and waiting fans had collected, she wandered into the bookstore on a whim. Customers at the store were hurried outside. The rose-bearing children attempted to follow her there, but were not allowed to get close. They waited some more, but did not manage to hand over the flowers to their chief minister.
Media reports said she spoke to the organisers and even bought some books (Those waiting outside the store did not see her move past the A-shelf). She left soon after.
This year, intolerance arrived at the doorstep even before the festival began. It was an opportune moment to talk about art being held hostage to irresponsible politics.
And, yet, the issue was only ever discussed tangentially, or meekly.
Journalist Vir Sanghvi opened his conversation with author Shobhaa De by specifying that he would not talk about the Karni Sena. The two instead discussed other occasions on which De had been threatened with violence for her views.
At a session moderated by journalist Vinod Dua, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who received the largest audience by far this JLF, said he was too afraid to speak openly. By way of a feeble compensation, he admitted that Dua’s show on politics was one he appreciated for saying the things he was too afraid to.
Director and writer Anurag Kashyap narrated his many trysts with the film certification board, but steered clear of mentioning the Karni Sena.
Other speakers referred to the events preceding the festival as “the Padmaavat controversy”, gradually normalising this euphemism for politically motivated violence. Anger gave up its place to dispiriting acceptance.
The strongest words that Tharoor, the most popular member of the Opposition, could muster over the issue was: “ Kuchh toh gadbad hai (something’s fishy).”
Kota Neelima is the author of Widows of Vidarbha , a book about the region’s widows of farmers who committed suicide. Showing up at the festival despite threats from the Karni Sena over an article she wrote for the DNA , she took on questions about the group at her press conference.
“If they care so much about women, why aren’t they protesting about how women are featured in other films?” she demands to know. “Why aren’t they protesting when a woman is raped on screen? Has Karni Sena protested the depiction of women as submissive? And if they haven’t, then do they truly care?”
After the press conference, two journalists approached her for follow-up questions.
“Ma’am, how do you like Jaipur? What do you think about Rajasthan and its tourism?
Neelima managed a strained smile.
“Jaipur is a very nice city, with very nice culture. It’s one of my most favourite cities. I am very happy to be here.”
There were no other questions.
When a TV journalist congratulated her for expressing her opinion, she took a dig at his channel, keeping a straight face, “You work for a very good organisation and you must be very proud of it.” The journalist merely looked down and walked away.
When I asked her what this anger does to her, to her work, she sat up with a laugh and replied,
“Democracies exist because of anger. Fundamental rights exist because of anger. Anger is a good thing. Anger keeps my sentences short. Anger ensures I don’t waste my time or words. Anger keeps me motivated. It keeps me working for good.”
That, in effect, also summed up everything that was wrong with this edition of JLF, that made it less than special — its art less potent, its speakers less compelling, its dialogue less honest — the absence of anger.
If JLF sees itself at the helm of the struggle for artistic self-determination, then it is time for it to go home and introspect.
Sneha Vakharia is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru
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