Literary debates

JLF Southbank: By ignoring boycott call, writers may have missed out on powerful stories of dissent

Refusing to associate with a dubious sponsor could have sent out a strong message.

Should writers care who sponsors the literary events they are invited to? Is the question of sponsorship merely a minor detail, an irritant that derails the larger goals of free speech? Or is it something that needs to be considered in the wider realm of freedoms as such, where speech is merely one of its manifestations?

The protests against Vedanta’s sponsorship of Jaipur Literary Festival Southbank last weekend have opened up this key debate. For writers, these questions boil down to a personal dilemma that needs to be resolved every once in a while. Ruth Padel, the British poet and novelist who attended the Southbank event, posed it as following, while speaking to The Guardian.

“Sponsorship, and its potential taint, is a global issue," she said. "Do you pull out or speak out? Boycott, or bear witness?”

Given Padel’s long commitment to environmental concerns and her literary curiosity about the relationship between nature and the human, the disclosure of Vedanta’s sponsorship of JLF Southbank must be deeply conflicting.

Vedanta is a global mining company with a seemingly disturbing track record of environmental damage and human rights violations in the regions in which it operates. The damage is serious enough for some financial investors to have pulled out of the company altogether. Padel chose to attend despite her initial horror and shock on finding out the JLF-Vedanta connection. She writes that she decided to use the occasion to speak out.

The complex workings of sponsorships

The question of sponsorship is at the heart of this debate. Sponsorship is usually taken to be a gift bestowed by a benevolent patron upon a chosen individual, event or cause. The language of hospitality, of giving and receiving, and of hosts and guests displaces the language of financial contracts that advertising otherwise deploys.

Yet, sponsorship remains a form of advertising – in fact, a more potent form, since it allows an intimate relationship than mere financial contracts can ever harvest. So who is giving and to whom? And what precisely is being exchanged here in the garb of hospitality and gift? This is where the seemingly contradictory logic of sponsorship comes into play. And this is where the messy materiality of the intellectual enterprise is revealed too.

What Vedanta, a corporation fighting accusations that it lacks integrity, desires most is to share space with those who possess integrity. This is how advertising works – often, film stars who endorse perfumed soaps need not say a word. All they have to do is be framed in the same photographic moment – film star and the soap unified in one image. The image tells the viewers that the star quality is now shared by the soap too.

This possibility of unlikely connections is what JLF Southbank enables Vedanta by accepting its sponsorship. Vedanta can now mine the integrity and reputation of its guests and benefactors. It can possess what it sorely lacks. The gift, then, in this equation, is not what Vedanta is giving, but what writers are giving through their mere presence.

The untold stories

This brings us back to Padel’s question – boycott, or bear witness? The writers can choose to rationalise their presence at an event as an act of bearing witness, of seeing and telling the world of injuries, injustices and wounds inflicted upon the humankind.

But in this case, the notion of bearing witness seems to be an afterthought. Vedanta and the struggle of the adivasis in Niyamgiri was not on the agenda. Discussions at the event were not about the allegedly unethical practices of Vedanta, but, for instance, about the form of reparation that the British Empire might owe its former colony.

The Twitter feed #JLFSouthbank was not littered with tweets about the protests. If at all, the protesters figured as unwelcome disturbances that were ruining the festive atmosphere. We were told that the protesters were disruptive. Some writers even interpreted the protesters’ refusal to engage in dialogue as their failure to make their case. Yet, it is precisely through their refusal to celebrate literature and writing that was at odds with its materiality that the protesters were able to challenge the logic of sponsorship.

So, might we ask the writers to listen, to pause their storytelling for a moment, and pay attention to what they take as noise around them? Perhaps those stories will leave a mark greater than what any discussion at a literary event could ever do. The refusal to accept the hospitality of a dubious sponsor, as some participants did, is itself a powerful form of storytelling and a form of bearing witness, worthy of experimentation.

Ravinder Kaur is a historian currently working on the history of economic reforms in India.

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