Friday, February 01, 2013

India’s flourishing offence industry hits literary festival – again

A few days before the now-famous (and perhaps infamous) Jaipur Literature festival, the only thing most people thought they knew was that Salman Rushdie’s potential visit was being blocked, this time by elements of the Indian People’s Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.

William Darampyle, author and organiser of the festival, took pains to clarify that the event this year would not court controversy like it did last year, telling Index that festival organisers “have an open door policy, and welcome everyone for a reasoned debate”. Rumours about Rushdie missing the event due to protests were untrue — he was busy promoting the film Midnight’s Children, a film adaptation of his 1980 novel by same name.

Darampyle also rejected reports that radical groups did not want Hari Kunzru and Amitav Kumar at the event. Last year, the two writers read extracts from Rushdie’s novel the Satanic Verses at the festival, after the novelist was forced to cancel his appearance after facing death threats from Islamists. Darampyle said that Kunzru and Kumar would not speak at the festival since neither of them have new work, rather than any kind of external pressure. There were also reports of factions of the RSS warning against inviting any Pakistani writers to the event.

All in all, the Jaipur Literature Festival seemed to have invited an almost predictable amount of controversy that comes with the organisers’ tireless efforts to allay any fears that freedom of expression were being scarified for the sake of fringe groups. 

However, by the close of the festival, one of its producers was slapped with an arrest warrant while a panelist, noted sociologist Ashis Nandy has faced protests and has been threatened with arrest for making a statement that was misconstrued as an insult to India’s poorest — calling them the source of the country’s corruption. Nandy, who is a lifelong supporter of the rights of Dalits and so-called lower castes in India, explained that he was quoted out of context. His point was actually that members of India’s upper classes are less likely to be held accountable for corruption than the more impoverished members of India’s society.

Curiously, the statement was made on the morning of 26 January, and most festival attendees had no idea that the controversial remarks were made until they were met by a small crowd of 20-25 protesting the remarks as they left the venue.

What happened next has become an almost trademark series-of-events in India. The media picked up the out of context quote and ran with it. Police First Information Reports (FIR) had been lodged, with some senior leaders going as far as to suggest he be arrested under the National Security Act. 

Nandy was then shamed publicly as media coverage of the scandal continued to increase — meaning that most of what anyone could read about the festival would be tied to this controversy.  It had almost fallen by the wayside that 275 speakers discussed topics in 175 sessions ranging from literature to religion, from Kashmir to Somalia, from politics to, ironically, censorship. Despite this wide range of conversations and 200,000 attendants, the festival has been yet again overshadowed by the media giving airtime to fringe groups, leaving its conversations and debates out of the public discourse.

Although larger papers and channels in India allowed their coverage to be hijacked by the Nandy controversy, some bloggers and news sites were able to paint a more nuanced picture of the other discussions at the festival. As Rushdie put it at a separate event, the tragedy of India is that you are defined by “what you hate or are offended by” — and that tragedy is now at a boiling point. What should be the response to “offended” groups who call for boycotts of books, movies, talks, and even cartoons? Is it really an answer to simply cancel appearances under the threat of violence, or to limit freedom of expression to such a level that no one could possibly be offended? Or is it sticking to India’s secular and liberal roots — where every religion and culture has a place — and perhaps pushing media outlets to give as much weight to the progressive as they do to the regressive?

“We are living in a changing society. Our forefathers did not see the amount of changes in the last 3,000 years that we have seen in the last 10 years,” stated another Jaipur director, Namita Gokhale. In an editorial, the Hindu slammed what it called the “flourishing outrage industry,” which is a tool to acquire political capital, stating that it is “helped by a slew of laws that takes the feelings of easily offended individuals very seriously”. By “using the police to settle a scholarly argument”, India seems to have confirmed a liberal society’s worst fears — perhaps it is not so liberal after all.


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egg style said...

On the Nandy controversy, well, here’s my take. He is a fine sociologist, though now popularly known only for two things. One, spotting a proto-fascist in Modi long before Gujarat’s 2002 pogrom; and two, insulting Dalits unintentionally (it would seem).

However, whatever point of irony he was trying to make at the Jaipur LitFest, the fact that few-to-no Dalits have risen to his defence should make all freespeechwaalas pause for thought. What about Dalit voices in all this?

At first, it seemed absurd to me that he was at risk of being slapped with charges under a law aimed to shielding Dalits from ‘atrocities’; but then, an essay in Outlook by S Anand directed my attention (while am not in consonance with his other views) to the relevance and rationale of that law. The Act outlaws verbal violence against Dalits, violence that usually takes the form of slurs/putdowns spoken willfully to reinforce public perceptions of the target’s inferiority. Given India’s failure so far to have equity accepted by all as a self-evident principle in social/economic relations, such slurs DO qualify as violence, as anyone aware of the tools of caste oppression will testify. Whether Nandy’s particular words effectively qualify as verbal violence or not is hard to assess, but the way the media went to town with them by itself could have given them a lethality that harms Dalit dignity. Which is why it is sensible not to utter such words at all.

Not that India should lobotomise or blandify its intellectual space and play so safe that no reasoned critique can be levelled against anything that may be construed as insulting. Yet, it is fair to say that those deprived—almost by design—of voice, income and entries points to the economy in the world’s most inequitable and violent country deserve better than throwaway insults that the media and its far-from-deprived audiences seem to revel in.