Calling it a "painful but necessary decision to take", Sampath, a writer and historian, announced his decision to step down through a post on Facebook. Speaking to Scroll.in, the writer said that he felt the individual was not bigger than the festival.
"I am yielding to reclaim a larger space," he said. "People protesting my opinions have made it appear that the festival is only about me. In light of the vicious campaign against me, I decided it was best to step aside."
Sahitya Akademi award-winning Malayalam novelist Sara Joseph, her daughter Sangeetha Sreenivasan, Kannada poet Arif Raja, literary critic OL Nagabhushana Swamy and writer TK Dayanand had earlier this week pulled out of the festival, to be held on December 5 and 6, after initially accepting invitations to participate. There were also murmurs that other writers were contemplating pulling out.
In a letter to the organisers, Swamy had said: "I feel reluctant to be a part of a festival organised by those who are not willing even to pause and examine the anguish of the writers who have returned their awards."
Sampath, a Sahitya Akademi award winner, had written an article in a newspaper last month criticising the returning of Sahitya Akademi awards by a number of prominent writers over rising intolerance in the country and the silence of country's premium cultural body on the assassination of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi.
Sampath on Saturday said he stood by his views and was unwilling to withdraw his statements on the returning of awards. "I have the right to hold an opinion. I am not apologetic about my views. At no point, did I resort to personal slander of any sort," he said.
Sampath's contrarian views on whether erstwhile Mysore ruler was secular had also attracted criticism. After the Karnataka government's decision to commemorate Tipu Sultan's birth anniversary earlier this month, Sampath had signed a petition alongwith a group of very eminent historians on the need for recognising multiple view points and narratives in Indian historiography.
"This [stepping down] has been a very hard decision for me given that I am one of the founders and all the effort that went into starting this festival," he said. "But given the choice between being a festival director and a writer, I choose the latter."
He also criticised the manner in which protesting writers had withdrawn from the festival. "The fact that some of them released statements through the media instead of informing the organisers says a lot," Sampath said.
Shinie Antony, one of the organisers of the festival, said the festival has always been about the audiences and the authors. "It is no doubt disappointing that Vikram has chosen to step aside, but when you think about his reasons for doing so, which is in the larger interest of the festival, one needs to appreciate that sincerely," she said. "This was a discussion we had and his stepping aside does not take away the fact that it was his vision that gave the city this festival in the first place."
Sampath added that he was still open to being a panelist at the festival.
Here is the full text of Vikram Sampath's statement:
Over the past few days, I seem to have become the target of a personalized campaign that I believe is for two reasons. First, my personal view point on why I do not subscribe to the ‘Award Wapsi’ campaign. In an article I wrote in October 2015, I enumerated why I do not wish to give up my Sahitya Akademi award - one that has been given to me for my work by the people of India, judged by an independent jury of fellow writers and scholars and not a political party or Government. I had said then that it is a precious attestation of my work by my own community of writers and intellectuals and it was not given to me for being a political stooge. The best way to uphold freedom of thought, speech and expression from regimes of all orientations is to write, write, write. A view I continue to hold.
Second, was my stance on the recent Tipu Sultan controversy and a subsequent petition signed by me along with a group of very eminent historians, archaeologists, epigraphists and artists on the need for recognizing multiple view points and narratives in Indian historiography.
As someone who has researched the history of Mysore for over 15 years, I believe I am entitled to have an intellectual stand point on a matter of historical debate as also to this invaluable gift of freedom of expression that the founding fathers of this great country have fought hard to achieve for us.
I see from media reports and personal conversations in the last few days, that several of my fellow authors and speakers have cited these two instances as reasons for their withdrawal from participating in the upcoming edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF), an organisation that I along with other citizens of Bengaluru founded in 2012. BLF is Bengaluru’s festival; it is a celebration of literature for the city. We are proud to have built it over the past years as India’s largest community funded literary event. The Festival has strived hard to maintain an independence and neutrality that is so hard to achieve in today’s market-driven ecosystem.
The organizers and advisors, all eminent Bengalureans, believe and continue to believe that while the city of Bengaluru has its fair share of urban disasters and crumbling “hard” infrastructure, forums like BLF are quintessential to create the “soft” infrastructure where the city comes alive in open debate, discussions and dissent. By no yardstick of imagination was this ever “Vikram Sampath’s festival” as it is made out to be in the letters written by protesting writers and in the media. Anyone can evaluate the programming and the list of speakers in the last three editions and find that we have given equal space to all shades of opinion, irrespective of our personal views. I believe that this is what a literature festival needs to be, rather than reduce it to a cabal of participants and organizers who agree with each other on every point of view.
I now find this distressing scenario where my personal freedom of expression is coming in the way of the festival. Without getting into the finer details of nuance or metaphorical descriptions, my articles have been torn out of context and conclusions reached hastily. Names and labels have been attached carelessly without any evaluation of my past track record or body of work. I stand by my article(s) written in the past. I am not apologetic about them in any manner and will continue to cherish the freedom that my country gives me to air my opinion fearlessly.
However, in the interest of the organization that I founded and nurtured, which is now being linked to my personal views and targeted, I have taken the painful decision of stepping away from all responsibility of organizing the Festival. Since the protesting writers had a problem with my presence and involvement with the festival rather than the festival’s nature and character - I am sure they would not have agreed to participate in the first place if it was the latter, I am hopeful that my withdrawing of involvement will now make them more comfortable with participating. The festival and the ideals it has stood for are far greater than me or any individual – it would be a shame if because of me, differing views go unheard.
The Festival has always had a strong team running it, including the founding team of Shinie Antony, Srikrishna Ramamoorthy along with key advisor V Ravichandar - they will continue to lead the charge as the organizing committee. I am listed as a panelist in the festival programme. If the organizers want me to speak at the festival, I am happy to be there. Else, I will enjoy the sessions from home via live-streaming!
George Washington’s words ring in my ears: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”