Should we criticise the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival for inviting two functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to this year’s edition of the annual festival? Murmurs in the literary circles seem to suggest that the organisers of JLF succumbed to pressure from the Right Wing. A glance at the list of speakers and programmes makes it clear that there are a fair number of liberal and Left-leaning people among the speakers. Even the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sita Ram Yechuri, is in that list. So a balance appears to have been struck.
Journalist Shekhar Gupta was right when he lambasted those who oppose the idea of giving Right Wingers space. By doing so, he argued, it is the liberal space that gets shrunk. That idea was even upheld by the man who is much hated by the Right Wing, Jawaharlal Nehru. When he was prime minister, he rejected a suggestion by the editor of the weekly Blitz, RK Karanjia, to proscribe the RSS as it was opposed to the constitutional values of India. Banning ideological groups would only drive them underground where they could assume a dangerously subversive power, Nehru said. Even a majoritarian ideology like that of the RSS needs to be fought out in the open.
Moreover, in present-day India, it is not the prerogative of Liberals or the Left to decide whether to have a dialogue with the Right. It is the Right Wing, now in the ascendant, that is in the position to choose whether Liberals should be allowed access to prestigious forums. Keeping in mind the sensitivity of the Right-Wing masters of the day, even people who previously championed liberal democratic values have started to examine what they say.
We see it being done in the universities where positions should actually depend on the recognition of an individual’s work by their peers in academia. But increasingly, heads of academic institutions are creating occasions to give platform to the so-called intellectuals of the RSS. So one should not be surprised or upset that the JLF is inviting intellectuals belonging to the RSS.
Of course, Right Wing voices need to be made part of a civil dialogue or conversation. One is only struck by the timing of this realisation by the organisers of the JLF. The RSS has been around for a long time, but it has only recently qualified as a potential participant of the JLF. The real problem with this festival is not the presence of the RSS ideologues but the main sponsor of the JLF, whose name is prefixed to that of the festival. Perhaps some of the finest minds from India and abroad who are attending the event should be reminded that they will avail of hospitality paid for by people who were instrumental in vehemently mobilising and instigating lynch mobs against some of their peers.
Let us not forget the concerted campaign last January against young student activists at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. So effective was the vilification that Kanhaiya Kumar, who was president of the university students union, was brutally assaulted by a group of lawyers in Delhi. In fact, so pervasive were the hate-campaigns, led by the very television news channel whose name is prefixed to the JLF, that they have made Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders permanently vulnerable to attack by people who have been persuaded by the propaganda that these young students are “anti-national”.
It didn’t stop there. Nivedita Menon, a respected professor and feminist writer, was targeted by the same news channel, inciting violence against her. Gauhar Raza, an Urdu poet and scientist at the government-funded Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, was declared a member of the “Afzal-lover gang”, a reference to Afzal Guru, the convict hanged for his role in the 2001 Parliament attacks. These were not isolated attacks. The tirade against these writers and scholars continued on the channel for many days .
People who have not been targeted in this way would perhaps say that such attacks need not be taken seriously. They fail to realise that for those whose faces have been displayed prominently on television for days, and described as friends of terrorists or anti-nationals, it is matter of life and death. They are under mortal threat.
It is nobody’s argument that merely attending the event will turn visitors into advocates of hate-ideology. But they do legitimise their efforts.
The channel has also been at the forefront of a propaganda war against Muslims. Its blatantly false reporting about Kairana in Western Utter Pradesh is only one such example. It has portrayed Muslims as a threatening presence for Hindus in Kairana and in Dhulagargh in West Bengal.
Or consider how this channel handled the 2015 case in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, when 50-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a mob because it was rumoured that his family had been eating beef. Writers, artists and scientists protested the killing and the rise of intolerance, which embarrassed the government and the party in power. But these very writers were attacked as being anti-national by the channel, which is the patron of the celebration of creativity in Jaipur.
Unfreedom and fear
It has been reported that JLF’s organisers did try to look for other sponsors but failed. It is being argued that the JLF, having evolved into a unique institution, could not have afforded any discontinuity. This school of opinion says that it is vital to understand the compulsions of the organisers who, it is claimed, want to build a literary culture in this country where literature is rarely celebrated publicly.
But do we need such a massive celebration? It is the gigantic scale that necessitates the participation of corporations, the head of one of India’s top management institutions told this writer. The ethical universe of these corporations, he said, is defined by a very old and simple word: profit. They cannot be expected to be proponents of freedom and democracy.
The last two and half years have been difficult for many of India’s minorities. We, in universities and elsewhere, too have lived with a feeling of unfreedom and fear. This feeling has brought us closer to understanding what minorities face. We are being made part of a zombie culture. Therefore, it is difficult to miss the strategic mind behind the theme of the JLF: Bhakti. Bhakti sounds sublime. The selection of the theme brings to mind something Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Times of extreme oppression are usually times when there is much talk about high and lofty matters. At such times it takes courage to write of low and ignoble matters.”
In India 2017, we need this courage as badly as oxygen.
Apoorvanand is a literary and cultural critic who teaches Hindi at Delhi University.