Monday, January 27, was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Some 200 survivors of this most notorious of Nazi concentration camps gathered at its gate. One of them suggested an 11th commandment for the world: “Thou shalt not be indifferent”.
Monday was also the last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Speakers at JLF are rarely indifferent, neither in the quality of their work, nor in their convictions. I attended some wonderful sessions. Ravish Kumar speaking eloquently about the women of Shaheen Bagh, holding his audience entranced; Rana Ayyub demanding courage from the media to thunderous applause. Leila Slimani, a French-Moroccan novelist talking about being a writer as she imagined writers to be, “scandalous and impolite”; Asiya Zahoor, a Kashmiri poet, graceful and articulate despite aggressive referendums on the abrogation of Article 370 yelled out by the crowd.
JLF audiences are rarely indifferent either. Last year was the first time I spoke there, and I was amazed and delighted by the sheer numbers that attend any talk, and by how keenly they listen. JLF may be held in a fairground atmosphere, but its sessions offer intense engagement. Hands fly up in the air even before a moderator has finished asking for questions.
Perhaps least indifferent of all, this year, were the five students who appeared in a corner of the Diggi Palace on Republic Day, to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The CAA protest
I did not see the protest; I didn’t even know about it until late that night. I only saw the videos. First, a handful of young men and women shouting the usual slogans – azaadi, inqilab – in a small, sunny circle formed by a small, cheerful crowd. Then, the protestors being led away by bouncers in black. One of them puts his hand over a protestor’s mouth. And finally, the news reports that the five students were detained in a Jaipur police station for the rest of that day.
JLF issued a statement to explain why it did what it did – march out peaceful protestors and hand them to the police. The statement says that JLF received “complaints from our partners”; and that JLF does not “wish to silence protest, but to ensure our visitors – students, older people and international guests – can take in the diverse content and knowledge for which the festival is known.”
A sympathetic reading of the statement would be that its organisers would like JLF to be a “safe space”, a place for debates, not declamations.
I wish India were a safe space.
The day I returned to Delhi, I got a call from a college I was to speak at next month, telling me that their entire festival has been cancelled because the local police didn’t approve its programme.
The next day, my newspaper told me that 14 men convicted of burning 33 Muslims alive during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 have been given bail by the Supreme Court. It told me that a comedian has been barred from various airlines on the advice of the minister of civil aviation. The comedian’s fault was to heckle a news anchor whose allegiance to the ruling party is well known. It told me that a whole school in Karnataka has been charged with sedition after its students staged a play against the CAA.
Assaults on students
My favourite speaker at the JLF was Simon Schama, the historian, who delivered a wonderfully discursive lecture on the resurgence of populist nationalism. He spoke of how, in the decades following the two world wars, the sun of liberal democracy was shining bright. Then, in the summer of 1989, Schama first heard of a place called Kosovo and of a man called Slobodan Milošević. Milošević, said Schama, had an ability to “boil up the juices of national feeling”; watching him kindle the flames of Serbian nationalism was like watching “a ghost that had levered open the tomb of history and was walking around saying, ‘I am the future – not your sun-shiny shared brotherhood of liberal, plural democracy’.”
In the years that followed, Milošević expelled over eight lakh Albanians from Kosovo. Over two lakh people died in Bosnia because of him. Like Auschwitz, Kosovo and Bosnia are shorthand for brutality and despair, war and genocide.
We do not need Schama’s prescience today to guess how widely that ghost has wandered. On 22 January, the day before the JLF began, six resolutions against the CAA were tabled in the European parliament; two of them said that the CAA could “create the largest statelessness crisis in the world”.
The students protesting the CAA do so against a battery of assaults. The students of Jamia and Aligarh were assaulted by the police. The students of JNU were assaulted by masked men and women bearing sledgehammers, many of whom are allegedly affiliated with the ABVP. Among the many disturbing images from JNU was one of its students’ union president, Aishe Ghosh, injured. Zee News took this photo and broadcast it with the deviously misleading caption: “ABVP student leader assaulted in JNU”.
It was on Zee News, too, that an anchor proclaimed he was proud of his channel for having coined the term “tukde-tukde gang” – a term that, along with “anti-national” and “urban naxal” – is widely used to delegitimise protest against – or even disagreement with – the government.
A question of sponsorship
Zee is JLF’s headline sponsor. JLF is not JLF alone: Zee is part of its logo; its twitter hashtag was #ZEEJaipurLitFest2020.
JLF sparked a lit-fest boom in India. Alongside, it sparked dozens of debates on corporate sponsorship for cultural events. A twitterstorm on the subject became an integral, even enjoyable, part of the JLF experience. By the time I was first invited, last year, the debate had moved away from corporate sponsorship in general to the specific sponsorship by Zee. How could left-liberal writers participate in an event paid for by right-wing media?
Debates on funding and the arts are hardly uncommon. Last year, many museums in Britain and America refused substantial grants from the Sackler Trust after the Sackler family was found to be involved in the opioid crisis.
I confess, however, that I didn’t let myself think about any of this very much. Writers need platforms, and platforms need money, and money is never quite clean. Besides, JLF isn’t just a wonderful platform, it is also wonderfully fun. I wanted to be part of it.
I had fun last year, and this year even more. But then, the videos of those students sucked the fun right out of it for me.
Nuanced debates about corporate money fuelling culture and debate were possible, even credible, once upon a time. But the fact of a security guard’s hand covering a student’s mouth, the fact of JLF admitting it reacted to “complaints from our partners” – do these facts allow, any longer, for nuance? That chants for freedom are assumed to take away from a festival’s “diverse content”, that the chanters’ eviction is assumed to restore “peace” – isn’t that a discomfiting echo of an argument we have heard too often of late, that dissent is bad and order is good?
Besides, is Zee merely a corporate entity, any longer, or is it also a propagandist prop to power? By contrast, at a time when much of our media, our politics, our law has made it clear, explicitly or otherwise, that dissent deserves punishment, the five students who raised their voices for azaadi were the most vulnerable people in Diggi Palace this Republic Day.
To throw them out – to have them taken away by the police – has diminished JLF.
But also, perhaps, it has brought alive a question that has been simmering for years in all those debates about sponsorship and literature, a question that JLF and its organisers cannot possibly ignore any more: as push comes to shove, which side will they choose? That of the outrageous writer, that of the courageous journalist, that of the dissenting student…or that of the power they disturb?
To avoid that choice now would be an act of supreme indifference.