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What the Tata Literature Live! controversy says about lit fests

While cancelling an event with Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad is unacceptable, it is also time to stop promoting lit fests as a nest of revolutionary ideals

Scholar Noam Chomsky. (Photo: Getty Images).
Scholar Noam Chomsky. (Photo: Getty Images).

The recent uproar over Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest cancelling a session featuring scholars Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad has opened a familiar can of worms. In fact, even the sequence of events leading up to it would hardly surprise anyone with the slightest interest in the lit fest circuit.

Prashad and Chomsky, both left-wing thinkers renowned in their fields of work, were scheduled to discuss the latter’s book, Internationalism or Extinction (2019), at Tata Literature Live! Among other topics, it considers the threats of nuclear war and climate change facing humanity. However, ahead of the event, 50-odd academics, activists and civil society members posted an open letter addressed to the duo on the online platform, urging them to boycott the event.

Their participation in such an event, as the letter stated, “comes as a great disappointment to us, as the Tata Group has had a long history of forceful displacement, human rights violations and environmental plunder.” It then went on to document egregious infringements of human rights by the Tata group, especially against the Adivasi population in Odisha’s Kalinga Nagar, where the company tried to forcefully acquire land for a steel factory in 2005. “The Literature Festival and other such events by the Tata Group are evidently an attempt to erase its crimes from the public consciousness – an ideological whitewashing,” the letter added.

Chomsky and Prashad refused to withdraw from the festival, but assured the signatories that they would begin the session by reading out a statement that makes it clear “how we feel about corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular”. On 22 November, Anil Dharker, founder-director of the festival, cited this statement as the reason behind his decision to cancel the session.

“I do not wish to comment on [Chomsky and Prashad’s] reasons for accepting an invitation to participate in an event and using the platform to air adverse views about the main sponsor,” wrote Dharker. “What I do want to state as strongly as possible is that the festival which I founded and run with a dedicated team, owes its success to a free expression of ideas, not a free expression of someone’s specific agenda.” Allowing Chomsky and Prashad to go ahead with their plan would amount to compromising the “integrity of the festival,” he added.

The distinction between “ideas” and “agenda” that Dharker builds his case on is disingenuous. Is the argument to stop nuclear warfare and arrest the process of climate change, as evinced in Chomsky’s work, merely only an idea? Or is it an agenda to convince readers to oppose such practices? Aren’t idea and agenda, especially in this instance, intimately correlated, and impossible to separate? For that matter, must the agreement to participate in an event, which avowedly guarantees freedom of speech and expression to its speakers, presume an unspoken compliance to not “air adverse views about the main sponsor”?

Each year, as the festival season rolls in, such conundrums surface unfailingly in the public discourse. The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is repeatedly criticised by liberals and progressive-minded people for its association with Zee, which owns Zee News, perceived by many as a divisive media platform. Some of JLF’s long-standing opponents, such as lawyer and writer Gautam Bhatia, have stood their ground by shunning it resolutely. Others, like historian Audrey Truschke, have admitted to their discomfort over attending it. “I come to JLF because it is an incredible platform and it allows me to reach an almost unbelievably large audience with my views,” she told last year. “I wish that it was not sponsored by Zee and I don’t have a way to square this circle.”

The organisers of JLF, in their turn, have invoked a bevy of reasons to defend their association with Zee, ranging from the argument that no money is ever untainted, to the fact that the sponsors of the event have never influenced their programming. In 2017, though, JLF’s invitation to prominent members of the right-wing organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, had sparked furious debates over this precise question of influence. Then, too, the organisers of JLF had clarified that the diversity of the event is such that it gives space to all points of views, across the political spectrum, and upholds freedom of speech and expression.

Another brouhaha around JLF involved the outrage over Vedanta, a business conglomerate with a dubious record of violating human rights, sponsoring its London chapter in 2016. Once again, pro- and anti-boycott arguments cropped up, each bolstered by its own set of validations, before they died a natural death—until the next edition of JLF came up.

While there will always be groups who will gladly play the devil’s advocate when it comes to arbitrating questions of right and wrong, it is perhaps time to accept literature festivals for what they really are: platforms to promote books published by an industry that is also run on commercial imperatives like any other. In a field where returns are mostly low (even best-selling writers in India are unlikely to make a living by writing full-time) and the stakes tend to be paltry, very few writers are able to resist the temptation of a platform that would give them visibility and access to a wide readership—though whether such exposure necessarily leads to a rise in sale of books is another matter.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Bengaluru-based writer Roshan Ali, who withdrew from Mumbai LitFest after the Chomsky-Prashad fiasco broke out, not to forget the many who quietly choose to refrain from such events without making a fuss in public. But, in all fairness to writers as well as festival organizers, it may be a good idea to dim the halo around these events and stop promoting them as breeding grounds of revolutionary ideals, a microcosm of unity in diversity, and what have you.

Retiring the pomp around these commercially-invested and publicity-oriented events may help rid them of the baggage of high-minded rhetoric that seems to plague them needlessly.

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