Literary controversy

It's a question of conscience: Thoughts on calls to boycott Vedanta-sponsored London lit fest

Writer Mahesh Rao explains what exactly is at stake.

Last weekend, a group of academics, activists and writers issued an open letter to their peers who had agreed to participate in the Jaipur Literary Festival's London event, urging them to boycott the event on May 21 because it had been sponsored by the mining company Vedanta.

The letter highlighted accidents at the mining company's facilities and alleged that there had been irregularities in the manner in which environmental clearances had been obtained. The signatories claimed that "Vedanta's activities are destroying the lives of thousands of people in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Punjab and also in Zambia, South Africa and Australia".

Vedanta has strenuously denied these accusations.

On Sunday, writer Mahesh Rao, author of the acclaimed short story collection One Point Two Billion and the award-winning novel The Smoke Is Rising, wrote a Facebook post putting the boycott call into perspective.

'I sometimes wonder about the efficacy of boycotts. I do essentially think this is a matter of conscience for each festival participant to consider. We all have to ask ourselves frequently a question that in its bluntest form could be expressed as: "How disgusting am I prepared to be?"

Will I court an influential person I detest because he or she might be useful to my career? Will I blurb a book that I’m not keen on as a favour to an agent or publisher? Will I speak at an event sponsored by a financial company that invests in blood diamonds? Will I accept a commission from a firm that is known to treat its employees appallingly? Will I write book reviews for and accept remuneration from a magazine that produces editorials that I consider toxic and divisive? Will I publish with a publishing house whose parent company is an international media conglomerate with a sinister agenda?

Some version of these questions are sometimes asked by all of us, in our position as consumers, producers, employees, citizens.

I think there are two specific things to note in this case:

1. Vedanta, and other similar entities, are directly responsible for a whole raft of exploitative and egregious violations which have been widely publicised.

2. In this case, we have numerous adivasi writers and activists appealing to participants to rethink their participation. They seem to me to be saying very legitimately: "Those of you who claim solidarity with us, show us an example of that solidarity by withdrawing from the festival." I read their appeal as an expression of this question: "Are you saying that a 'safe space' for debate on London’s Southbank is more important to you than a safe space for adivasi communites in the areas in which they live?"

So, in light of these circumstances, the question for each participant is quite straightforward in my view.

“Does my conscience allow me to enjoy Vedanta’s hospitality and participate in an event that it is using to soften its image and to attempt to whitewash the nature of its activities?”

The answer need only be a simple yes or no.'

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