Once literature festivals were about literature. Now the lit circuit seems to have become the tolerance circuit. No matter how big or small the festival, a discussion on tolerance has become mandatory. And no matter what is said on the panel, it will guarantee a newspaper headline, more so than a Margaret Atwood.
By the time this lit fest season is over, there will be no celebrity, minor or major left untapped. The latest to join the roll-call is writer Taslima Nasreen.
She tells the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode that India is, in fact, not intolerant. “I don’t think India is an intolerant country,” said the Bangladeshi writer who has found refuge in India. “Most of the people are quite tolerant of each other’s fate, I think.”
But she admits that while the laws in India do not support intolerance there are plenty of people who do. She slammed selective outrage asking why secularists in India were “questioning only Hindu fundamentalists while leaving alone Muslim fundamentalists.”
Why secularists in India were “questioning only Hindu fundamentalists while leaving alone Muslim fundamentalists."
The question has never been about whether India is tolerant or not. It’s been whether India is becoming less tolerant which is an entirely different question but a distinction that seems to escape many of those weighing in on the issue. But whether one agrees with Taslima Nasreen or not, it cannot be denied that she has some credibility when it comes to this particular topic. She has after all had her life turned upside down because powers-that-be, whether in her homeland of Bangladesh or her adopted home in Kolkata, have taken a decidedly intolerant view of her writings and opinions.
But Sonam Kapoor, best known recently as the 30-second flower-girl in the Coldplay video? Why is she weighing in on this? Or Karan Johar and Kajol at the Jaipur Literature Festival? “Talk about freedom of expression, which is the biggest joke in the world, I believe. Democracy is the second biggest joke,” said KJo for which he got a social media lambasting. Kajol, far more diplomatic, sidestepped the question by saying “we have no caste, no creed, no colour, no intolerance” in the film industry as if Bollywood is a microcosm of India.
But Sonam Kapoor, best known recently as the 30-second flower-girl in the Coldplay video. Why is she weighing in on this?
However we cannot blame the celebs. They are only answering questions being put to them. It’s as if ever since Aamir Khan weighed in on a “sense of growing disquiet” in his conversation with Anant Goenka, every reporter thrusting a mic in a star’s face is required to ask the intolerance question. And refusing to weigh in on the intolerance debate can itself be counted as a sort of weighing in anyway. So there is no escape. The tragedy is the current media circus around intolerance has far more to do with TRPs than it has to do with the murder of M M Kalburgi. Few mention Kalburgi anymore.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival final debate on freedom of expression, actor Anupam Kher told the crowd there is no nation in the world where you have as much freedom of expression as in India. Writer Salil Tripathi retorted, “Please go to Dharwad and tell that to Dr. Kalburgi’s family.”
One wonders what percentage of the crowd, many of whom had been chanting “Modi, Modi” with Kher as the chorus conductor, knew what Tripathi was referring to. One can bet far more of them had heard about what Aamir Khan had said than about Kalburgi. That’s inevitable in a celebrity-dominated culture but it’s also sad that a debate about intolerance has quickly become the lazy shortcut to a headline.
Octogenarian Nayantara Sahgal goes from festival to festival talking about intolerance but the debate is not being advanced in any way. The players have become well-established, their comments predictable. It has turned into a festival showpiece, sort of a WWE exhibition match between known crowd-pleasing gladiators like Anupam Kher and Suhel Seth.
Most of the writers, other than Sahgal and perhaps Ashok Vajpeyi, who returned their Sahitya Akademi awards have disappeared from the news. Who needs Punjabi writers and Bengali poets when Bollywood star power is at hand anyway?
Who needs Punjabi writers and Bengali poets when Bollywood star power is at hand anyway?
Even worse, when a Ratan Tata tells students in Chennai “While governments can be in the business of monitoring, they should have no role in telling people what to do” it is immediately spun as a Tata joining the intolerance debate. But as Dinesh Unnikrishnan points out he was actually talking about Modi’s reluctance to make bold moves on the privatization front, a charge that has now been carried forward by Tavleen Singh and Chetan Bhagat.
To shoehorn everything into the intolerance debate does the media no good and does not move the debate forward either. On the contrary, it ends up lending credence to the charge that the intolerance debate is a manufactured controversy, a media creation.
It is not. Whether fundamentalist groups are finding courage and succor is entirely a debate worth having. Whether the room for the dissenting view is shrinking in public discourse is a debate worth having. But let’s have a moratorium on asking every celebrity around, minor or major, for their sound bite on the intolerance debate. That risks turning the debate over intolerance into the “intolerance tamasha”.
But let’s have a moratorium on asking every celebrity around, minor or major, for their sound bite on the intolerance debate.