The Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 drew to a close on Monday after five days that featured more than 500 speakers from around the world. Even as the 12th edition of the festival featured debates about whether “liberals stifle debate” and conversations on “women and power”, concerns emerged – once again – about the ethics of conducting dicussions about progressive ideas under the banner of a sponsor that runs a television channel that has been accused of “playing off communal tensions, stoking flames in an environment that is already viciously polarised”.

It’s a charge that was levelled in a Facebook post last week by lawyer and writer Gautam Bhatia, who delineated the inherent problem with liberal writers attending and speaking at a literature festival whose title sponsor is Zee. “If you’re that liberal who is agonised about the mob-lynching and the cattle violence, you should know well what the breeding ground for that kind of violence is,” he wrote.

He contended that the Jaipur Literary Festival’s association lends the Zee News channel “legitimacy, credibility, and acceptability”.

This isn’t the first time this debate has arisen. Writing in in 2017, literary and cultural critic Apoorvanand listed the many concerted campaigns by Zee News directed at figures they claimed were “anti-national”: Jawarharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, professor Nivedita Menon of the same institution and Urdu poet and scholar Gauhar Raza, among others. The slanted coverage prompted one producer at the channel to resign soon after the JNU sedition case. “It seems like we are nothing more than the government’s mouthpiece or contract killer,” he said in his resignation letter.

The channel has also been criticised for propaganda targeting Muslims, including false reporting that Muslims had forced an exodus of Hindus from Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh in 2016 and communal hate mongering following the murder of 31-year-old teacher named Ankit Garg in October. Earlier, in July, human rights group Citizens for Justice and Peace wrote to Zee News asking it to apologise for a programme in which poets called for widespread violence against the population of Jammu and Kashmir.

‘No influence’

Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited came on board as the title sponsor for the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014. Founded in 1991, the company was known as Zee Telefilms until 2006, when the news and entertainment units were placed under separate divisions. Zee News comes under the umbrella of Zee Media Corporation Limited.

Bhatia told that the longevity of this sponsorship is telling. “Zee has been the title sponsor for so long and they’ve got worse each year,” he said. “I can understand the first couple of years but why have they remained the title sponsor year after year? It shows that you don’t care.”

The festival organisers, however, asserted that the sponsorship does not influence the discussions at the festival. “Zee has never interfered in the programming in any way at all,” Namita Gokhale, co-founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, told “They’ve occasionally made suggestions and left it for us to take a call on them.”

Festival producer Sanjoy Roy echoed Gokhale while also stating that it is Zee Entertainment and not Zee News that is the title sponsor. “The question we have asked is what is the colour of money,” he said. “If you scratch the surface of any big brand, there will be a story that may or may not be kosher. We’re very clear that the programming is not influenced in any way.”

He added: “The festival is huge because we allow everyone to register. If we have to have platforms of this size, give me a list of the people who are willing to give us money in the way that Zee is.”

Lending legitimacy

For some speakers at the festival however, the separation of the sponsor and programming is not so clear. Historian Audrey Truschke, a vocal critic of Hindutva forces in India, said she found the assertion of a lack of influence by the title sponsor “laughably unbelievable”, pointing to the inclusion of participants from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 2017 as an indicator.

Truschke, who was a speaker at this year’s festival as well as in 2017, admitted her own conflict about the issue. “I come to JLF because it is an incredible platform and it allows me to reach an almost unbelievably large audience with my views,” she said. “I wish that it was not sponsored by Zee and I don’t have a way to square this circle. I have been criticised online for coming to a festival sponsored by Zee and I think that criticism is good. I do wish the organisers would take their ties more seriously.”

Bhatia said the question goes beyond potential influence on programming to the legitimacy that Zee gains from the sponsorship. Pointing to the contentious sponsorship of the London edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival by Vedanta in 2016, Bhatia explained: “It’s the reason you have corporate sponsors. You associate the corporation with a festival that occupies a certain set of values.” In this case, the relationship goes beyond a simple corporate sponsorship: the name of the company is part of the festival’s name, making them inseparable entities, Bhatia believes. “By putting pressure on the festival to hold the title sponsor accountable, they might tone it [the incitement of hate and divisive coverage] down,” he said.

He suggested that participants should ask themselves hard questions. “If you espouse progressive politics, then at some point you have to ask yourself whether you’re willing to undergo some amount of pain in order to live by those politics,” he said.

To boycott or not?

Author and columnist Salil Tripathi, who has been a speaker at several editions of the Jaipur Literature Festival, does not fully agree with the direct impact of the sponsorship on Zee’s credibility. “Those who dislike Zee won’t think well of the network because it sponsors JLF,” he said. “Those who love Zee (and by implication hate JLF because it gives a platform to many liberal writers) don’t think Zee is more credible as a result of the sponsorship either.”

Tripathi added, however, that were was definitely an “urgent need for organisers of literature festivals to develop robust criteria, in consultation with writers, human rights experts, and social activists including academics and lawyers, to evaluate who should be appropriate sponsors of literary or other cultural events”.

He doesn’t hold out hope for an instant resolution but Tripathi does not think that a boycott is the answer. “Personally I believe boycott should be a weapon of last resort,” he said. “I feel those decisions are best left to individuals, their decision to boycott should be respected, and those attending the festivals should have a compelling explanation why they are attending the festival but should not be deemed guilty by association. What they do with the opportunity is what will help others make up their minds, on where those writers stand.”

‘There has to be another way’

As the country’s largest and glitziest literature festival, JLF towers above all other similar events. This year alone, the festival announced that nearly 400,000 people had attended. Authors jockey for the opportunity to speak at the festival, to be seen, heard and have their books bought by an audience of massive proportions, apart from the networking opportunities it offers to the publishing world. Because it is a festival that prides itself on hosting voices of dissent, many feel the spotlight needs to be shone particularly brightly on its ties and affiliations.

The problem however, goes beyond the self-described “greatest literary show on Earth”. “Of the 80-odd festivals in India, only a handful have sponsors who might pass most tests of purity,” Tripathi said. How then, should writers and readers respond?

Author Sharanya Manivannan believes that taking a stand comes with certain complexities in a cloistered publishing ecosystem. “If you really question the system or it feels threatened by you in some ways, you can absolutely be rendered irrelevant,” she said. “Even authors who stage conscious boycotts can do so only at certain career points, and the tides change.”

Many authors, she added, boycott festivals quietly, leaving the general reading public unaware of the finance and power issues in publishing while the festivals continue unencumbered.

“We need to look at the lit fest circuit in relation to the publishing ecosystem, which is a purely capitalist one in which most authors cannot make a living,” Manivannan said. Taking fellow authors to task, she asked, “Why do we make it all look better than it is? Why do we, for the sake of keeping up our own appearances, keep polishing the image of the industry and sweeping issues under the carpet? There has to be another way.”