If it's festival season in India, controversies can't be far behind. Few events in this country can claim as grand a reputation as the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) when it comes to courting trouble, which has been trailing it since the last few years.
With a month to go before the inauguration of JLF 2017, eyebrows are already being raised at the selection of speakers for the 10th edition of the festival. As The Indian Express noted, "Indicating its growing clout, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] is set to make its debut at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January." Two senior pracharaks of the outfit, Akhil Bharatiya prachar pramukh Manmohan Vaidya and sahsarkaryavah Dattatreya Hosabale, have been invited to speak on a panel, moderated by journalist Pragya Tiwari.
But that is not all.
The report added, "Some of the most prominent writers of the 'award wapsi' campaign that took place around the intolerance debate — including Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and K Satchidanandan, who have been JLF regulars — have apparently not been invited this year."
While these three names mentioned above are not on the programme for 2017, poet and writer Keki N. Daruwalla is. The latter, too, had returned his Sahitya Akademi award last year, when several prominent writers and intellectuals, including Nayantara Sahgal, Krishna Sobti and Sara Joseph, had followed suit to protest against rising intolerance of freedom of speech and expression in this country. Rajasthani poet Ambika Dutt, who also returned his Sahitya Akademi award last year, has been invited to this JLF too.
But the presence of top voices of the RSS has drawn serious flak from some observers, including the question of the legitimacy of including such non-literary names in a festival that purports to promote literature. Journalist Hartosh Singh Bal put this question to Sanjoy K Roy, whose company Teamworks is involved in the production of JLF.
Roy's response to this barb went thus:
— Sanjoy K Roy (@SanjoyRoyTWA) December 20, 2016
But the reference to literature, especially to the writings of RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar, opened another can of worms.
Festival co-director Namita Gokhale, whose choice it has been to invite the RSS members, cited diversity of viewpoints as the reason behind her decision.
"The RSS has been something of a closed organisation for years," she said to HuffPost India. "We only hear about them but never directly from them. I feel there's a need to listen to different points of view." She added that the decision to host the RSS speakers was taken out of "an intellectual curiosity", in sync with the "spirit of the festival", which aims to promote plurality. "The polarisation of ideas cannot be so rigid that we don't listen to all sides," she added.
JLF has already seen political leaders of various affiliations speak there. From Murli Manohar Joshi to Tarun Vijay, many have participated in the festival, and this year is no exception. Apart from the panel with the RSS members, there's one on the legacy of the Left, featuring Sitaram Yechury, the leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and MA Baby, a CPI(M) leader from Kerala. There's another session on the Indian Constitution, featuring Pratap Bhanu Mehta among others.
"The polarisation of ideas cannot be so rigid that we don't listen to all sides" - Namita Gokhale
The composition of some of the panels is interesting as well, such as the one that features celebrated Kannada writer SL Bhyrappa in conversation with fellow writer Vivek Shanbag. It's no secret that Bhyrappa was not in the best of terms with UR Ananthamurthy, the latter's father-in-law, especially with respect to their political beliefs.
On the absence of some "award wapsi" writers from the list, Gokhale pointed out that not all authors are invited on consecutive years and political beliefs are not a criteria for asking someone to speak at the festival. "It is absurd to imply that speakers were invited on the basis of their 'award wapsi' status," she said.
JLF has had two major run-ins with controversies in the recent past. In 2012, writer Salman Rushdie could not appear for the festival amid concerns over his safety. A fatwa had been imposed on his life by radical Islamic clerics offended with his writing, which, they argued, amounted to blasphemy. So, as a compromise, the organisers decided to link him into the venue through video. But this plan, too, was called off when irate Muslim groups marched in, threatening dire consequences if the broadcast were to proceed.
Four writers -- Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Ruchir Joshi and Hari Kunzru -- decided to read out excerpts from Rushdie's banned novel, Satanic Verses, in protest against the decision, which led to a call for their arrests. The incident has left a bitter aftertaste ever since.
More recently, in 2015, an uproar erupted over the London edition of the JLF organised earlier this year, involving the sponsorship by Vedanta, a company widely criticised for its unsafe mining operations. Many writers stepped down at the last minute as they became aware of Vedanta's involvement, but some did not budge, in spite of calls to take what many considered the conscientious step of opting out.
JLF 2017 will take place in Jaipur, Rajasthan, between 19-23 January 2017. For more details about the venue and programme go here.
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