JLF Brings ‘Exotic India’ To Your Doorstep – Who Pays The Price?

by Kavita Bhanot

Over the last few weeks, a growing number of writers and activist groups have been protesting the sponsorship of the upcoming London Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) by the notorious metals and mining company Vedanta. An open letter, calling for boycott of the festival by participating writers, has been signed by over a hundred writers, academics and activists and published on websites Round Table India and Foil Vedanta. The choice of sponsorship (which is not an anomaly in JLF’s history, previous sponsors include DSC Limited, Tata, Shell, Rio Tinto and Coca Cola), along with the festival’s response to the call for boycott, raises questions about whose ‘freedom of speech’ is prioritised over others, and about the legitimacy and relevance of the festival itself.

The Jaipur literary festival, set up in 2006, attracts thousands of guests every year to the Indian city of Jaipur, and is billed as the largest free literary festival in the world. Directed by writers Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, the festival plays up its location, exoticising Jaipur as the colourful city of Maharajas, elephants, dance and music. The festival itself is held in a palace, musical performances are held in the evenings, and guests are given royal treatment, staying in luxury hotels, attending extravagant lunches, dinners and parties; ‘James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding,’ is how Dalrymple described JLF in the Spectator.

The festival evokes and perpetuates colonialism in more ways than one. Shiny and accessible, this collaboration between western elites and Indian upper caste elites has become the international guardian and gatekeeper of ‘Indian literature’. Publishers, literary agents, ‘post-colonial’ literature departments and funding applications cite the festival as the go-to for ‘accessing’ Indian literature. Perhaps it is for this reason that most of the writers who are so outraged, who speak so loudly, so righteously about freedom of speech, about democracy and ‘liberalism’ when it comes to the silencing of someone like Salman Rushdie, stay rather quiet when it comes to questioning a powerful and compromised entity like the Jaipur Literature Festival, in the fear perhaps of jeopardising their careers.

The festival is brought to Britain as part of Alchemy, ‘a festival of explosive South Asian Culture’ that presents a shiny version of ‘South Asia’ for the consumption of British audiences. Meanwhile JLF at Southbank features ‘a creative caravan of writers and thinkers, poets and balladeers with a chance to bask in the colourful ideas of Jaipur without having to so much as put a foot on an aeroplane’. The festival this year, as the press release tells us, will be a ‘medley of oral and performing arts, discourses on Bollywood, gender politics, and tales of the Raj. Add to this some of the biggest issues affecting us today, as well as insights into traditional, ancient Indian medicines and healing along with a dash of piquant eroticism.’

‘Jaipur-on-Thames’ is how co-director Dalrymple describes it. ‘A trip to sunny colourful Jaipur in the middle of British winter, and a chance to enjoy early summer in Britain, escaping the heat in India,’ he says of the exchange, redolent of the annual movement of British rulers from the hot summer in Delhi to the hills, in Shimla. Hidden behind this colourful celebration, however, is the blood of those at whose cost such a festival is being put together, highlighted so clearly in JLF’s sponsorship by Vedanta.

Vedanta as a sponsor is simply another facet of the colonialism that is at the heart of the festival, the neoliberal form that imperialism continues to take, as a British company (wearing an eastern garb, another collaboration between eastern upper caste elites and western elites) exploits in the name of profit, the people of “third world” countries, through deception, stripping of resources, pollution and displacement.

‘So Adivasi writers and activists can’t go to London to speak but all the useless Savarna writers will assemble at Southbank for Vedanta’s shit fest,’ wrote filmmaker Surya Shankar Dash on his Facebook page in justified anger, one of a number of sharp, fearless tweets, Facebook posts and memes in response to Vedanta sponsorship of JLF. Dash is referring here to Gladson Dungdung, a Jharkhand based human rights activist who has long been asking ‘difficult questions’ about illegal land acquisition in Adivasi areas. Dungdung, author of seven books, including Mission Saranda: A War for Natural Resources in India and Whose Country is it Anyway: Untold Stories of the Indigenous Peoples of India, was on his way to attend a workshop on Environmental History and Politics of South Asia at University of Sussex, when his passport was impounded and he was offloaded from a Delhi-London Air India flight.

The connection that Dash makes between this barely noticed ‘silencing’ of one writer and the impending ‘celebration’ of literature at the Southbank is all the starker because of the connection both have to the world’s most hated company, Vedanta. Dungdung is part of a global movement of communities, including Adivasis, Dalits, Bahujans, villagers resisting illegal land acquisition by the state and by multinational companies, such as Mittal, Jindal and Vedanta in India, and the accompanying displacement, pollution of land, air and rivers, and industrial waste, as well as murder, torture, violence.

Such resistance, from Goa to Odisha in India, from South Africa to Zambia, has frustrated Vedanta’s ambitions of expansion, extraction, exploitation, the most well-known being the successful campaign of the Dongria Kondh tribals in Odisha, India, who in 2014, along with Dalit Bahujans, saved their sacred Niyamgiri Mountain and prevented Vedanta from mining it for the Bauxite they needed for their alumina plant at the bottom of the hill.

‘Is it a coincidence,’ says Dungdung, ‘that Vedanta signed an MoU with the Jharkhand government for an investment of Rs. 5000 crore, and just two days later I was offloaded from Delhi-London Air India Flight? Vedanta will be given 700 hectares of forestland in Dhobil Ankua reserved forest for iron ore mining, which is one among seven hundred hills in Saranda Forest. After Niyamgiri Hill, Vedanta is ready to destroy the Saranda Forest, which is the largest Sal Forest in Asia and needs to be preserved to sustain the ecology. We cannot allow them to destroy the forest anymore in the name of economic growth.’

Meanwhile, Vedanta has been desperately attempting to save its image internationally, and to whitewash over its crimes. The latest manifestation of this is its foray into the world of ‘literature’. A 2015 JLF press release states that the ‘festival reception and music was supported by Vedanta Resources, a diversified natural resources group that has a strong association with Rajasthan through Hindustan Zinc and Cairn India.’ This year, as the logo on publicity material has shown (now removed in a face-saving tactic), it is the title sponsor.

‘How can Vedanta claim to promote Indian literature and culture, when it doesn’t even respect the human rights of Adivasis and ecology?’ says Dungdung. ‘Vedanta intends to manufacture consent in its favour in order to ensure the loot of the natural resources of India.’

The almost surreal hypocrisy contained in these two, almost colliding events, is underlined all the more in the festival’s absurd response to the call for a boycott: “While we appreciate the concerns of those who have posted the open letter,” said Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, which produces the festival, “we remain an open platform that allows for free thought and expression. Our strength continues to be our programming, the speakers and the quality of free and frank discussions that JLF brings to audiences. Our sponsors do not influence these choices nor have a say in our content.”

As if content can ever be divorced from production. The spaces that these festivals create, where they are held, who is welcome there, who they address, along with who is paying, all influence the nature of an event.

The festival is apparently an ‘open platform’, but for whom? Dungdung would presumably not be invited to speak at the festival. You wonder on which basis the speakers are selected. And since you have to buy a £20 ticket to JLF London, even if you only want to go to one event, who is the audience? And there is the space itself, how it is constructed, who feels comfortable in the Royal Festival Hall. This is only to point out that there is no such thing as an ‘open platform.’

Elites can only continue the pretence of creating ‘open platforms’ as long as they assume that they are speaking only amongst themselves and no-one else is listening. JLF may even serve a discussion on land rights in the next festival (without having a sense of shame at the shamelessness or hypocrisy of it) or on farmer suicides or caste discrimination. Indeed, in a tokenistic gesture that is supposed to prove what an open forum JLF is, Roy has just announced that they will now have a session on Dalit rights moderated by upper caste ‘human rights activist’ Salil Tripathi: “‘We have a session on dalit rights and it’s an open platform that allows for free thought and expression,” said Roy, adding that he is hopeful that the festival will function smoothly.’

Like the absurdity of all or mostly male panels speaking about women’s rights, or white panels speaking about ‘India’ (there is such a panel discussion programmed at JLF Southbank 2016), it is with the same arrogance that this festival frequently brings together South Asian urban upper caste elites such as Tripathi, to pontificate on the idea of India, on marginalised writers or other ‘issues’, trying to seem relevant, blowing bubbles in the air, sharing thoughts and anthropological ‘insights’, making generalisations about Adivasis and Dalits, as if it is unimaginable that they could be present in the conversation. They might even invite the odd Dalit, Adivasi, transgender speaker to soothe the liberal conscience and apparently show inclusivity, but such a gesture can only be tokenistic and patronising in such a setting.

 

Foil Vedanta

The truth is that a festival such as JLF — the conversations, the people, the space — are set up to be alienating, intimidating, silencing for most people. In 2012, the festival was dealing with another ‘controversy’, as Rushdie was disinvited from the festival, apparently due to protests by Indian Muslims. It seemed to make little difference whether he was there or not, the festival was full of Rushdie clones, reading from Satanic Verses, talking about him. His absence seemed louder than his presence, certainly louder than the presence of Mohammad Saleem Engineer of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, who was invited to give a perspective of the ‘other’ side. In a last minute discussion titled ‘Freedom of Speech’, put together in place of Rushdie’s cancelled session, Saleem was called on stage to be mocked and ridiculed, intimidated and silenced, by the other panellists Tarun Tejpal, Javed Akhtar and Rahul Bhose and by the booing audience. This is the ‘open platform’ that Jaipur Literature Festival provides.

The idea of ‘freedom’ that is being thrown around in the response to the call for boycott, is the usual recourse of the privileged and powerful when challenged. If you read between the lines, the implication is that those calling for boycott are impinging on the freedom of this festival, on that of the writers who will be attending. The meaninglessness, farcicality even, of the idea of ‘freedom,’ is clearly highlighted by the coinciding denial to Dungdung of his ‘freedom of expression.’ And the truth is that writers or would-be writers are silenced all the time, at every stage. Let alone freedom of expression, those who have been and continue to be killed, tortured, displaced, poisoned due to the greed and exploitation of companies such as Vedanta, are being deprived of the freedom to live. And this same company is funding JLF to hold ‘free and frank discussions.’

However, the elites clearly value their own freedom of expression above all else, and will fight to preserve their apparently ‘free’ spaces; which in India include upper caste media, upper caste publishing houses, upper caste film and literature festivals, at any cost. And to silence critique, they invoke an abstract idea of literature, art or ‘free speech’ as something sacred, that needs to be protected, in order to continue their reign, unquestioned.

One wonders what is so important about the impending festival in London that it must take place at any price, even if it means joining hands with a criminal company. Is it so necessary to hold an extravagant opening party and dinner for festival guests and other VIPs, hosted by Vedanta? Is there such a great need for three upper class white men to come together for a nostalgic conversation on the British Raj (two of them being direct ancestors of colonial rulers) as they will in the session Tears of the Rajas, with Ferdinand Mount and Nick Robins in conversation with William Dalrymple?

But such a conversation is perhaps quite apt for a festival that is colonial to its very core. As Pallavi Rao writes in her Facebook post: ‘Destination litfests that cater to savarna elite and white tourists while playing up to every orientalist fantasy of India are where this problem began, no? DLF, Google, Tata, Zee, Vedanta all came after Jaipur’s Diggi Palace and its tents were sold to our imaginations. No point going after the buyers without turning our gaze to the seller.’

Having organised such a festival myself I know how much it depends on nostalgic and continued colonialism; offering luxury exotic five-star literary holidays for writers and ‘stars’ who come from the west, while feeding on the internalised colonisation of those in the subcontinent, who relish at the opportunity to meet and network with ‘international’ writers, journalists, editors and publishers. Along with this goes the need to create a brand for the festival, while catering for the needs of numerous sponsors (many of whom, under the limelight for human rights abuses, tax evasion, environmental damage, unethical practice, are eager to tick CSR boxes), who will pay for the extravagance, And then there is the commodification of literature and writers, as writer-celebrities (constructed or promoted) are brought together with entertainment celebrities.  It is this very circle that has created, from nothing, this new entity of the international literary festival, with similar extravaganzas mushrooming all over the world, from Dubai to Dhaka, Lahore to Galle, while claiming, in all innocence, only to ‘celebrate literature,’

The problem is not only that the key sponsor for JLF London 2016 is Vedanta. It is not simply a ‘branding problem.’ They say that no publicity is bad publicity and JLF, a magnet for annual controversy, might welcome this campaign that calls out its blood money once again (many have done so in the past), as good for getting the word out. Or perhaps, realising that it is too damaging for their image, the festival might drop Vedanta as its sponsor. However, JLF will still remain the same festival that was happy to take money from Vedanta and to help to promote and whitewash the company. It is still the festival that lied to its participants that the company has not been convicted of any crime. What can be said about festival organisers and writers who are happy to lend their names to a PR exercise for a murderous company, not caring where the money comes from, as long as the festival goes ahead, as long as they get to party on the Thames this summer?

To show your support, do connect with the Facebook page ‘Boycott Vedanta JLF London’ and attend the protest on Saturday 21st May 10am-1pm, outside Royal Festival Hall Southbank.

Update 21/05/2106 This was what was reported in Business Standard.  But according to Salil Tripathi, there will be no session on Dalit Rights at JLF London 2016

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Kavita Bhanot grew up in London, lived for many years in Birmingham, then moved to India, where she directed an international literature festival, worked as an editor for India’s first literary agency and set up and ran a guest house in Himachal Pradesh.

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2 replies

  1. Very nice piece! We’ve got ‘alternatives’ to everything these days, so how come no one is talking of an ‘alternative lit fest?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kavita, your piece is unfortunately factually wrong as far as the reference to me is concerned. You say:
    ” Indeed, in a tokenistic gesture that is supposed to prove what an open forum JLF is, Roy has just announced that they will now have a session on Dalit rights moderated by upper caste ‘human rights activist’ Salil Tripathi: “‘We have a session on dalit rights and it’s an open platform that allows for free thought and expression,” said Roy, adding that he is hopeful that the festival will function smoothly.’”

    1. I’m not doing a session on Dalit rights.

    2. I’m doing a session on the Partition and another on dissent, called “Against the Grain.”

    3. Sanjoy K Roy has denied the statement that IANS ascribed to him.

    4. It is your prerogative to see me in terms of which family I was born in and what I do for a living. I have no comments. I am disappointed a bit, since I thought that because we’ve met each other and got to know each other a bit, you’d know better; I hadn’t expected this of you. But we live and learn.

    5. The least you can do is to amend your post – but that’s your call.

    6. Best wishes to you and your work.

    Like

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