India’s Weighty Litfest Funding Endangered by Criticism of Modi

Jaipur event’s financial sponsors may worry about upsetting government

By: John Elliott

The internationally famous Jaipur Literature Festival, which has become the largest event of its kind in the world, may have to abandon its stylish pitch of the past 15 years in the Pink City’s Diggi Palace and search for a new location, maybe even in another city.

Always controversial because of its independence, the festival hit the headlines last weekend when its open celebration of books, ideas and the freedom of speech and debate led to frequent outspoken condemnation of India’s Narendra Modi government.

Most lit fests are short of funds from sponsors, which recently caused two to be cancelled in Mumbai and Chennai. They might now find their problems increasing if companies want to avoid annoying what is a hyper-sensitive administration, as Swapan Dasgupta, a pro-Modi BJP MP and columnist warned at the weekend. 

The message that the government was creating conflict and divisions in society while brutally quelling the voices of opposition went out from the crowds of approaching 100,000 a day to Modi and his confrontational henchman, the home minister Amit Shah.

Albeit in only a small number of the total 220 sessions, they were told they should curb their anti-Muslim policies and, specifically, cancel new constitutional amendments on citizenship as well as plans for a new National Register of Citizens.

There were several speakers who represented right-wing ideology including Makarand Paranjape, a writer, poet and academic who had five sessions. He has written extensively on Hinduism and is known as a supporter of the lit fest. Also speaking was Hindol Sengupta, who recently wrote a biography of Sardar Patel and, like the others, is promoting a Hinduvta view of history. They were well received but not with the enthusiasm that greeted the critics..

That will not have pleased Modi and Shah, who condemn critics as “anti-National” and “pro-Pakistan,” but it should have pleased the Rajasthan state government, which is run by the opposition Congress Party. It is odd therefore that the government has backed a police demand that the lit fest must move because of traffic congestion, which has always seemed manageable. There have however also been concerns about safety inside the event if there was an emergency.

Diggi Palace is a charmingly faded pile built in the 1860s as a grand townhouse or haveli for a rural Rajasthan ruler. It became a small heritage hotel in 1991. The lit fest began there in 2006 as part of a broader arts festival and then started on its own in 2008, with just a few hundred people attending.

All venues overflowing

Over the years, the family that owns the palace, headed by Rampratap Diggi, has enlarged the areas available, eased congestion blockages, and found space for food and crafts stalls. Last weekend all the venues were overflowing and circulation areas were packed with the young taking selfies.

The festival needs a stylish location to maintain its image and attraction, so the organizers have rejected a soulless government convention center 20 km away. “If the city doesn’t host it, we can look elsewhere. But if it is to be held in Jaipur, it has to be in a place which has an atmosphere that represents the city’s traditional architecture and its character,” said Sanjoy Roy (left), managing director of Teamwork Arts and the festival producer.

Firmly anchored in local Rajasthani culture and Mughal traditions, the festival began with massive puppets parading through the central location on January 23, and it then spread out over five days to include writings from across India and the world.

AI, Brexit and Jesus

The opening session had Marcus du Sautoy, a leading mathematics and science academic and author, talking about how books could maybe one day be written by artificial intelligence. Fintan O’Toole, an Irish author and columnist, suggested that Brexit had given the English nationalism “narrative” that it had lacked, illustrated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s dream “returning to the glories of a “Global Britain.”

Tom Holland, an author of prize-winning books on ancient and medieval history, described Jesus as a “shabby dreary figure” whose victory over Roman power had come from the misery of his crucifixion. Holland somehow worked his way round to describing cricket as “an Indian sport perversely given to the English by God.”

Lemn Sissay, a poet and author, read passionately from the best-selling story of his life, My Name is Why, asking why, after being shipped from Ethiopia to the UK, he was placed with a foster family and named Norman Greenwood after the name of the foster parent.

Then there was Manoranjan Byapari (below), a Dalit (bottom of the caste system) from Bangladesh who is now a popular writer and speaker, showing how an event like this can discover and encourage new talent, transforming lives.

Dalit refugee blossoms

Byapari grew up in Indian refugee camps in West Bengal, joined Naxalite (Maoist) rebels in his early 20s and was imprisoned, later becoming a rickshaw puller in Kolkata. While in jail, he learned to read and write and in 1981 to produce stories of rickshaw pullers that were translated into English. He has now had 10 novels and over 50 short stories published.

I was there in conversation with Benjamin Dix on his dramatic graphic novel Vanni about the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils in the early 2000s with a tsunami and war with the island’s army.

Namita Gokhale, co-director of the festival who encouraged Byapari, has written a fictionalized version of all that happens in Jaipur Journals, which was launched last weekend. Her characters (some, she says, identifiable) range from a gay literary icon to a burglar with a passion for poetry, and an elderly lady who carries her unpublished novel around in a canvas bag.

The organizers have usually managed to avoid extreme confrontational views that could trigger demonstrations, balancing political and other opinions, though sometimes that has not worked.

In 2012, the author Salman Rushdie was prevented from speaking at the festival, (and being interviewed by video link) because of opposition from Muslim organizations, which included threats of extreme violence both inside and outside the venue.

This time there was no violence, just determined and excited crowd-generated opposition to Modi and Shah, demonstrating the views of the young as well as liberals.

Roy set the tone when he said India’s current “narrative of hatred” could be countered through art and literature, adding: “We cannot afford to be silent anymore. We must speak up with one voice for the common cause of humanity.”

The government’s citizenship and registration measures require people to produce papers and fill in forms to prove their right to be called an Indian, something many could not do because of the country’s notorious lack of official records. This has been opposed by masses of protests across India for six weeks, spearheaded by Muslims and students (as I reported here).

A call for civil disobedience 

“If anyone comes to your house and brings papers, tear them up,” Margaret Alva, a veteran Congress Party politician, said to loud shouts and cheers on January 25. This would be “civil disobedience,” she added, raising the tempo by linking her call to India’s campaign for independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

A few minutes earlier, there had been a raucous reception for Madhav Khosla, a constitutional academic, who said that the citizenship amendment was “completely unconstitutional” because it discriminated between religions.

Speakers on the anti-Modi/Shah theme were led by Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP and former United Nations official, Pavan Varma, a former diplomat turned politician, and Rajdeep Sardesai, a prominent tv anchor and author of two books on Modi’s election victories.

Tharoor, in particular, appeared on stage so often that Swapan Dasgupta, a regular speaker at the lit fest (he interviewed Tom Holland last weekend) tweeted that the festival had “crossed the limits” and “the neutrality of the event is comprised.”

Problems for lit fests

In a newspaper column on January 26 that could indicate more problems for lit fests in general when they are short of funds, Dasgupta wrote: “the inclination of business sponsors to take a step back could also be the result of many festivals becoming echo chambers of Left-liberal activism, aimed at pandering to just one political ecosystem….the diversity of Indian intellectual opinion isn’t always fully reflected in the programs….This partiality isn’t appealing to sponsors who are in search of potential consumers irrespective of their voting preferences.”

Apart from that, there was scarcely any comeback from government supporters. It was quite different at the Raisina Dialogue international affairs conference in Delhi earlier in the month, where the external affairs ministry is one of the organizers.

Two people in the audience immediately stood up and objected when the government was criticized. One of them, a young lawyer and activist in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the arch nationalist umbrella organization that embraces the BJP, had gone to the conference specifically to counter criticism.

Navtej Sarna, an author and a former ambassador in the US and UK, described the Jaipur festival as “the single most important part of our soft power” in 2016 when he opened an offshoot of the fest in London. Under the banner JLF, similar events are now held in Belfast, Toronto, New York, Houston, Boulder, Adelaide and Doha.

That soft power has been projected well from Jaipur, with its mix of Mughal history, color, crowds and traffic jams. It is never a good idea to tamper with a brand that works, so a solution is needed that keeps the event in the city with at least the base at Diggi. A solution is also needed for the worries that Dasgupta has written about before financial sponsors retreat in droves, fearing government reprisals.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.