Literary debates

Boycott or speak up? Vedanta-sponsored litfest makes writers ask themselves difficult questions

The literary community debates the ethics and methods of protesting against festivals with controversial sponsors.

After the disruption on Saturday of sessions at JLF Southbank – the Jaipur Literature’s Festival’s London event – by activists protesting against the sponsorship of the festival by mining firm Vedanta, debates broke out on social media. The questions asked: is it right to ask writers to boycott litfests? Should events be stopped from the taking place? Are these democratic methods?

One of the most fascinating exchanges took place on a Facebook post from writer and critic Nilanjana S Roy, leading to both convergence and divergence in viewpoints from other writers and journalists. We present an edited version of these exchanges. (In some cases, the participants have edited their own original responses for greater clarity.)

Nilanjana S Roy, writer and critic
I'm glad that most of the writers at JLF Southbank didn't give in to the boycott calls, and that some did talk about the huge problems of associating with a sponsor with Vedanta's track record. Too many festivals, art shows, films, etc., have been shut down by pressure of moral force applied by the right and by religious groups who have nothing in common with those who called for the Southbank boycott except for this – they believe in all cases that their cause and their call to shut down a particular space is just.

I support the anti-Vedanta protestors, and believe that a festival’s many participants, audiences, readers and writers have the right to ask it to change its sponsorship policy. But so much of the anti-Vedanta protest spilled over into a more generalised trashing of JLF and litfests, and I am not in agreement with this at all.

These festivals are commercial, have their flaws, but many of them are far more open, democratic spaces than the average book launch or seminar space. Protest, make demands for improvement, place your case, negotiate. But enough with the shutdown calls. It reminds me too much of the old Left in Bengal with their perpetual "cholbe na, cholbe na" attitude.

Barkha Dutt, journalist and writer
I am one of those who attended the festival. I do not accept that sponsors dictate my mind. An example closer home is fairness creams, which continue to be sponsors on TV networks but that fact has never stopped me from doing critical shows on the issue.

Secondly, I have not understood why it's Vedanta in particular and not ever big mining company, every big builder, every giant ruthless corporation whose sponsorship should not be considered suspect. What about the dictator or extremist money that funds so much of academia now? (Recall LSE [London School of Economics] and Gaddafi till the money was returned.)

Lastly, the protesters were shouting down sessions. I asked them more than once to join me in conversation. They just kept screaming. How is that debate? It's bullying.

I am a mere participant but I would like to see illustrations not just of sponsorship but also ownership of media, newspapers, university chairs that is by money that has no controversy or questions attached!

Nilanjana S Roy
I haven't seen the sessions but I'm very critical of the right wing when they've shouted down or bullied speakers, and it's sad to see protestors using the same tactics.

On Vedanta: this comes down to personal conscience and many feel that all mining companies and big builders are equally culpable. I would say that if a company becomes a sponsor, its record is open to scrutiny and comment.

In the past, e.g, various groups have asked for JLF boycotts/protests targetting these companies: DSC, Google, Coke, Rajanigandha, and Merill-Lynch, among others.

I drink Coke occasionally, use Google (a lot), have driven on DSC's flyovers and think pan masala is as dangerous or not as liquor, so those protests left me unmoved. Compared to these companies, Vedanta's practices have been documented to be a lot worse.

But I agree with the transparency-for-all argument. And I would love to see an effort by protestors of all kinds to work actively with good corporates and provide a sponsor list that might give as much funding to the arts as the big mining companies, construction companies etc. Something constructive, not just the regular and tired litfests-bad corporates-bad mantra.

Shefaly Yogendra, risk, governance and technology advisor
Greenpeace protestors forced the closure of British Museum the very first day a new exhibition on Egyptian artefacts – sponsored by BP – opened last week. Many people who had travelled from afar at great expense and had tickets to see the exhibition were interviewed and they said, they do understand the issues Greenpeace thinks they don't understand. There lies the rub.

Barkha Dutt
Yes, it does come down to what moves or disturbs one personally. I refused to accept a Teachers award because I felt it was surrogate liquor advertising seeking legitimacy – many other artists accepted it, some are even advertisers for vodka if I am not wrong (I am a happy drinker, btw).

What about Essar and the sponsor of the Tehelka fest in Goa when it existed – I didn't see these protests. What about Fair and Lovely? I see its parent company everywhere. What about builders who own magazines and giant corporations that own channels or Saudi money that bankrolls academia or the Qatar fund that is non-democratic.

I simply ask, on what basis do you ask for one and not the other. And lastly, I oppose boycotts. The right shuts down people and we all stand up. But so does the left as it previously tried to do with Vickram Sampath’s fest for not agreeing on “award Wapsi”. What happened to good old open debate?

Aparna Jain, writer
Just for the record, Think by Tehelka in Goa was protested by the local residents. They boycotted the festival and encouraged many locals to, for a couple of reasons. The Hyatt coastline infringement and the controversy with Goa government. So it did have its fair share of participants not turning up. Many who believed or agreed in the cause of the protestors did not participate.

Raghu Karnad, writer and journalist
About the Bangalore Lit Fest, there was never a call for a boycott – only a few writers exercising their own conscience, which was spun into a boycott bogey by the organisers for their own reasons

Orijit Sen, artist
Calling for a boycott, or even protesting to a point where one's non-violent actions may be seen as obstructing the proceedings, are legitimate democratic methods in my opinion. I wish more writers had heeded the call to boycott. No money is clean, but that doesn't mean that lines cannot be drawn. In a world of tainted funding, Vedanta's sponsorship still stands apart.

Nilanjana S Roy
A boycott call is legitimate. My objection is simply that it is a tired way to protest and I am personally moving away from the idea that boycotts are effective. Your artwork for instance focused far more attention on Vedanta. Lines can and should be drawn, and there's no reason why the very wide range of differing opinions on a company or corporate sponsorship should prevent that process from happening.

I disagree that obstructing proceedings is truly democratic; we've all seen too many cases where the right has literally drowned out other voices, and I find this as reprehensible as that.

Salil Tripathi, writer and journalist
It is a legitimate form of protest to call for a boycott. It may even be a legitimate form of protest to disrupt an annual general meeting of the company. It may also be a legitimate form of protest to picket peacefully at the offices of Teamworks of JLF.

But it is not legitimate to shout down and prevent a writer from reading a poem or from letting her speak about her opposition to Vedanta, nor is it legitimate to prevent other speakers from speaking, or others from listening. And it is hardly mature on the part of protestors to refuse to accept Barkha Dutt's call to enter into a dialogue with her at the festival as she says she did.

Orijit Sen
I'm not in a position to defend the specific actions of the protestors – since I wasn't there. But perhaps there was a legitimate fear of the entire discourse being co-opted within that space? Is it possible that you were helping Vedanta gain legitimacy even as you discussed the environment under their benevolent patronage?

Salil Tripathi
I think that activists' fear that writers were being coopted was misplaced; the activists should have judged us by our words and actions – over a quarter century, in some of our cases. To call us folks with tribals' blood in our ink (as some did on Twitter) or trying to ascribe motives to and referring to them as savarnas might give some cathartic pleasure to the activists, and many of us have thick skins, but it didn't help their cause in any way.

And I don't know how I legitimised the company given that I said that no project should ever go ahead without community consent and force should never be used.

Nilanjana S Roy
Did this do Vedanta any good? It focused greater attention on their record, and I heard from people who attended the festival that Dean Nelson, e.g, shared his story of reporting Niyamgiri.

If the boycott call worked in one spectacular way, despite its lack of appeal for writers who'd reported on and thought about the issues involved, it is probably that it's persuaded Vedanta never again to sponsor an event that features articulate and opinionated writers! (Or so one must hope.)

Karuna Nundy, lawyer
It's an important issue, let's deal with this carefully. Would you speak at a platform exclusively sponsored by Dow Chemicals? How about Union Carbide? The all or nothing approach to money is wrong, I think. Some money is a lot dirtier than other money. One way to keep the money in this instance and have the show go on – the principle of more speech rather than less, “pure” speech – might perhaps have been to give the anti-Vedanta folks, some of whom are quite brilliant, significant space on the dais.

A rider to Mahesh Rao's point on directness – Union Carbide money is different from, say, TCS money. We use ideas of proximity, foreseeability and scale of wrongdoing in the law, morality and personal life all the time. There's no reason that that should suddenly go out of the window here, or become entirely subjective.

Nilanjana S Roy
On the history of writers using platforms irrespective of sponsors to speak their minds at JLF.

In 2013, Sudeep Chakravarti said, speaking at the Tata Steel front lawns, that he was going to be a "bit of a namak haram here" and criticised Tata for their activities having of late become an extension of the state's activities.

Perhaps another question to be raised is whether part of a writer's responsibility is to feel free enough to speak your mind, on the assumption that the platform belongs to you and to the public. It is not the property of the sponsors.

Karthika Nair, poet
I am often ambivalent about blanket bans, which can unfortunately deflect attention and cloud vital issues. But, sometimes, it is necessary to withdraw, as a mark of protest, just as it is sometimes necessary to be present to speak and raise one's voice at that very platform. It also depends on whether one's presence allows the same message to be made as loudly and as articulately as one's absence can (for absence can be highly effective).

However, I definitely cannot subscribe to preventing sessions or preventing others from speaking – I think we are directly in danger of succumbing to the same self-righteous destructiveness than extreme right- and left-wingers have been exhibiting these last years, impinging on everyone's freedoms. And that is not a “hierarchisation” of freedoms, simply the belief that to insist on the freedoms we hold dear, we have to allow them to others, even those whose positions we are in sharp disagreement with. That's why it's such a difficult right to stand by.

But in a world increasingly roiled by the nexus between civil society, corporates, politics and media, the role of citizenry (not to mention writers/artists) as watchdog is key. However, it is also a world where it is often difficult to know the exact consequences of one's actions or acquiescence. I think my reaction also depends on how direct and immediate the connections of the wrongdoing/wrongdoers (corporate, publisher, media house, theatre, State...) in question are with “my” own involvement (whether through a book, a production, an event, an award or the purchase of a product...) and the scale of that injustice or abuse.

I tend to measure my own actions based on a grid that's similar to the one that Mahesh Rao drew up. These are not easy choices, especially as there are seldom ways to determine the exact impact of one's actions. And I understand that someone else's decision in the same circumstances (as my own, in another context) could be different.

In this particular case, though, I was distressed by how the core issue of protesting against Vedanta's sponsorship (and JLF's acquiescence in affording them “good press”, in so many ways) got hijacked by slurs on participants, their legitimacy to question/speak on certain issues, and an outright attack on literary festivals. It did a great disservice to the protests, worse still, and diluted the urgency and necessity of the need to react to Vedanta at Alchemy.

And yes, there are various ways to react. Each decision depends on context, conscience and strategy. In the dance world, for instance, we face these questions regularly with the countries/venues that we tour to. The Israel/Palestine question is an oft recurring one.

Some theatres/ dance companies see no moral conflict in performing in Israel – their view is that a boycott will do no good, other than create a sense of exclusion and (false) victimhood. On the other hand, many others will not perform in Israel, period.

Whereas at yet another dance company, we decided some years back that we would not perform in Israel unless we were also given a platform in Palestine during the same tour, unless Palestinian viewers and dancers could have the same opportunities to shows or workshops as Israeli ones. Instead of a ban we made our presence contingent on access to the Palestinian audience that suffers directly and unspeakably from Israel's policies of restrictions on movement.

Each time the opportunity to hold a show or a workshop in Palestine transpires, it is a small victory for the community and cause at large: the sense that some voices are beginning to be heard. That's another form of protest. Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, together with Edward Saïd, created an orchestra with Israeli and Palestinian musicians playing and touring together, an initiative that was extremely effective – at least in this neck of the woods – in raising awareness and empathy for the Palestinian cause..."

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