By: John Elliott

When the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival arrived at London’s Festival Hall on the banks of the Thames for a day of bookish discussions and debates on May 21, they were worried about how far protesters opposed to Vedanta Resources, their extremely controversial lead corporate sponsor, would go in order to cripple the event.

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Two days earlier, protesters from Greenpeace had climbed pillars (left) that form the façade of the impregnable-looking British Museum and forced the first day of a big summer exhibition temporarily to close because BP was the sponsor.

As it turned out, there were few protestors at what is known as JLF SouthBank, the London spin-off from India’s highly successful annual festival in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur that attracts many tens of thousands of visitors every January and had 330,000 footfalls earlier this year.

There were only 20 or 30 demonstrators and they showed neither Greenpeace’s ingenuity and skill, nor a willingness to demonstrate calmly and engage in a debate on the issues. If they had done so, they would have found that a large number of people attending the festival agreed with their opposition to Vedanta, but did not see that as a reason to boycott a stimulating literary day.

“Angry, ugly and destructive”

They shouted and screamed and stormed into the main hall waving placards in the middle of discussions that they hoped but failed to halt. “Their cause was ok but behavior (I was there) was angry, ugly and destructive – they rejected offers to debate issues, saying that would mean getting involved”, I commented on Facebook and Twitter.

Eventually their efforts fizzled out, thanks to quiet and patient police persuasion that steered them and their aggression outside the building.

That might have been the end of the story, but discussion has continued in the social media and in India, mainly because Vedanta, a London-based Indian-controlled mining, metals and oil and gas company, is regarded as possibly the worst of a very bad bunch of Indian and foreign miners. They care little for the social and environmental disruption that they cause, and they try to smother both the effects and the protests with heavily publicized social programs and international public relations exercises such as sponsoring cultural festivals.

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This raises some important issues about the sources of financial sponsorships for such events, the access that protesters should have, and whether literary and other figures should fall into line and withdraw from a festival, depriving a large number of people (some 650 at JLF SouthBank) of hearing from them. Sponsors rarely have much influence – at JLF a company chairman might get a spot in one of the discussions, but little more.

There should also be questions about the campaign. There is no doubt that Vedanta, and its founder chairman Anil Agarwal have been accused, and in some cases found guilty, of all sorts of environmental irregularities (which of course they deny).

But there should be questions about the financial and other backing that such a protest campaign receives. There have for many years been suspicions that international aluminum producers finance non-governmental and other organizations to mobilize local people and block the mining of low-cost Indian bauxite that would disrupt markets with prices maybe 50% below international levels.

Such ideas can easily be dismissed as unreal conspiracy theories, but I don’t think they are necessarily unreal. The power and reach of the anti-Vedanta campaign is incredible – the Church of England even sold a £3.8m equity stake in the company in 2010 in response to the campaign.