Dodgy Donors Dog India’s Litfest Circuit

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.

This is not to suggest that Saturday’s demonstrators were being misled, but they probably had little idea of who was funding Foil Vedanta, which led the protests and has been in operation since 2011.

The focal point of the complaints is Vedanta’s US$1.7 billion plans for open-cast bauxite mining (with a nearby aluminum plant) on an Odisha (Orissa) mountain at Niyamgiri that the local Dongria Kondh tribe regard as sacred and part of their heritage and source of livelihood. The project was stopped by India’s last Congress government after a vote by people living in the area, but there are now attempts to reopen the issue, presumably because the current Narendra Modi-led government will be more sympathetic to the company.

The Foil Vedanta campaign is far wider however than Niyamgiri, accusing the company of “destroying lives and devastating the land” elsewhere in India and in Sri Lanka, Ireland, Zambia, Liberia, South Africa and elsewhere.

In accepting Vedanta as the named top sponsor of JLF SouthBank, Sanjoy Roy, who runs Teamwork Arts, a successful and respected Delhi-based production company that organizes festivals in India and abroad, clearly made a mistake. He failed to inform the festival’s two co-directors, Namita Gokhale and Willie Dalrymple, both well-known authors, that he was turning what had been Vedanta’s more informal support into high-profile sponsorship. He must have known that they would oppose the move.

Roy did this in order to cover the costs of the event, which he has told me amounted to about £100,000 of which 60 percent came from Vedanta and far less controversial sources including the highly respected Aga Khan Foundation, India’s Tata group’s Taj Hotels, and Apeejay, an Indian group that includes a chain of bookshops.

He has built up Teamwork over more than 20 years but had to divest a stake to financial backers to offset growing losses on the main Jaipur festival. This means he is under increased pressure to balance the books, and that has led the festival into some controversial associations.

Tata Steel, which has a mixed reputation environmentally and is criticized for 12 tribal people being killed during demonstrations at a steelworks site in Orissa in 2006, became a sponsor of the main Jaipur festival a few years ago and withdrew after facing some criticism.

The sponsor of the main event in January this year was Zee TV, a leading Indian tv channel, which led to JLF being drawn into a controversy when Zee was accused of tampering with a video film during student unrest at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University earlier this year.

There have been many other worthy supporters including the Getty Foundation and Harvard Humanities Center, and Dalrymple has said that “we have to try harder to find sponsors who don’t create division and dissension.”

There is of course a long history of sponsorships running into trouble, as Nilanjana Roy, an author and columnist, has reported in India’s Business Standard. In 2002, Germaine Greer and Jim Crace pulled out of the UK’s famous Hay-on-Wye literary festival. They were protesting against sponsorship by Nestle, seemingly an uncontroversial company, because of a powdered baby milk formula it was marketing in Africa.

In 2006, writers called for a cultural boycott of Israel in solidarity with Palestinian writers, teachers and film-makers, and this March over 100 writers called on the PEN American Centre to refuse support from the Israeli embassy for its annual World Voices festival.

And back in India, Vedanta and another much-criticised part of the Jindal family group has supported the Kalinga lit fest in Orissa, but protests are expected this year.

Hopefully JLF and Vedanta will now part ways because neither is good for the other – JLF provides the protestors with high publicity in their fight against the company, while the Vedanta label threatens to damage JLF which is becoming something of a national asset that needs protection.

Referring to diplomatic relations with the UK, Navtej Sarna, India’s new High Commissioner in London, described JLF SouthBank as “the single most important part of our soft power” when he opened the event.

Ideally there would be something like the UK’s Lottery Fund to provide support but, failing that, the Jaipur Literary Festival in Jaipur and London – and another spin off in the American city of Boulder – needs to be run by an independent not-for-profit trust that could hire Teamwork as the production company and impose strict sponsorship rules.

Unless something like that is arranged, one of India’s most astonishing and successful institutions will inevitably sometimes fall foul of critics who wish it no good and are envious of its success, and others who cash in on its urgent need for funds for their own purposes.

Hopefully, in future, the critics will be more constructive and open to debate than the crowd that failed to shut down JLF SouthBank last weekend.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog,, can be found at the right side of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.