The festival and its funder

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 31, 2020

Troubled affair: Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot lights a lamp during the inauguration of JLF 2020   -  PTI

The ongoing political turmoil in the country cast its shadow on the Jaipur Literature Festival over the choice of its title sponsor

One of the biggest questions raised around the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in recent years is its ongoing relationship with media company Zee Entertainment Enterprises, the festival’s long-time title sponsor.

The festival’s 2020 edition, which wrapped up earlier this week, was no different. A section of attendees as well as social media observers held that the festival was doing itself and the reading/writing public a disservice by affiliating with Zee. Media watchdog organisations such as The Hoot, NewsLaundry and AltNews have often accused Zee News of airing fake news, including doctored images and videos. Right at the start of 2020, Zee News was called out for a report that wrongly described wounded student leader Aishe Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, as a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the student union affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party). The channel said she had been beaten by “Leftist goons”.

On the penultimate day of JLF, which coincided with Republic Day, the event’s private security guards manhandled a group that was peacefully protesting against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), leading to injuries. The organisers’ official response on Twitter claimed they had “received complaints from their partners” that the audience couldn’t enjoy the sessions because of the protests.

An Indian author (who preferred anonymity) attending the JLF for the first time, as an invited speaker, told BLink, “A lot of us (writers) are very uncomfortable about Zee sponsoring the festival... I was reluctant [to take part in it] but was told, ‘Everyone is using this opportunity, why not you?’ After seeing the way the (anti-CAA) protesters were beaten up, I don’t think I’ll be returning next year.”

Given the scale and reach of JLF, early-career writers often cannot afford to pass up the year’s biggest literary event. It may be relatively easier for established authors to take a stand.

But not everybody is troubled by the affiliation. An editor at a prominent Delhi-based publishing house says, “It is a really tough job procuring corporate funds year in, year out. As long as they [Zee] do not interfere with the sessions at JLF, I think it’s fine. I think the festival does more good than harm.” A volunteer who has attended JLF for the past three years, adds, “I don’t support [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi or watch Zee News, but I think the festival should go on at any cost, even if Zee sponsors it again.”

Writer Salil Tripathi, who has been a speaker at JLF in the past, points out that most corporate sponsors come with unsavoury histories. “There are several problematic sponsors for literature festivals in India. Zee is not the only network in India which can be accused of biased and poor journalism... Should we do away with the festival TheTimes organises, or the conclave that India Today organises each year? What of Tata, which has not only contributed financially to the ruling party, but whose leader has recently praised the vision of the current Indian political leadership?” Tripathi adds that the festival should formulate a set of criteria for the sponsorship.

On a similar note, novelist Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee, a speaker at JLF 2020, says, “I think we’re living in an absurd era where we think if we boycott one thing we’ve possibly made an impact, but that’s the thing about capitalism, it’s so blurred and inter-related that I find it much more valuable to use every platform to say something that’s authentic to your narrative of the world.”

Mukherjee also felt that attending writers should have organised their own protest, in solidarity with the protesters ejected from the venue.

Some detractors of the festival are more scathing. Writer Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches English at Cambridge, tweeted a satirical ‘opinion poll’ a few days ago: “Goebbels-Riefenstahl Media Conglomerate invite you to GRMC Literary Festival they’re funding in 1937. Your options are: Refusing complicity flat out; accepting to ‘subvert from within’; you’d ordinarily refuse but now is desperate times even if GRMC very culpable for making it so.”

The options offered were: “One-off accept, subvert”, “Accept to ‘subvert’” and, finally, “Refuse! No pasarán!” (a Spanish phrase meaning ‘They shall not pass’).

In subsequent tweets, Gopal explained how the ‘let’s subvert from within’ argument was largely hollow. “People who enable Jaipur Literary Festival are not just enabling some nasty corporates — they are absolutely & fully part of an extremely vicious media campaign that has led to India being in (the) perilous state it is in today. You’re not fooling others, stop fooling yourselves. In addition to providing both amusement & sustenance to these forces who have no problem with your squeaking on the Diggi platform about how terrible it all is, while they go ahead & actually make it terrible (as you fondly imagine you’re bringing the system down),” she tweeted.

The ball is now in JLF’s court. As the chorus against their relationship with Zee grows more strident every year, it remains to be seen whether they can manage to cut the cord next year.

Published on January 30, 2020

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