On January 25th, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the world’s biggest free symposium of its kind, closed with liberal authors in India facing withering attacks from right wing Hindu groups.
That issue set an unspoken tenor for the festival. The plight of writer Perumal Murugan, who announced plans to commit suicide on Facebook after getting hounded by right wing groups for his fictional depiction of women in Tamil Nadu, where he grew up, proved especially troublesome.
Murugan’s 2012 novel, Mathorubhagan (Other Part Woman), is a sensitive portrayal of the lives of a childless peasant couple in Tiruchengode, a small Tamil town. The story, which takes place at the dawn of the 20th century, focuses on the practice of ‘niyog.’ The wife is cajoled by her family to attend a temple ritual where she begets a child with a stranger. The child born from this ritual is called sami pillai or “god’s child,” since tradition paints the stranger as a representative of God. The fundamentalist group Sangh Parivar has denounced the book as degrading to women and the Hindu faith.
That isn’t the only book that right wing groups have recently pillared. American scholar Wendy Doniger’s 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, has been pulled from shelves in India because of a concerted campaign by a Hindu radical, Dinanath Batra, who finds the tome objectionable for its supposed denigration of Hindu gods and goddesses. The JLF was also held against the backdrop of a large scale systematic attempt is being made by the present regime in New Delhi to mix myth into India’s history.
Just a few months before the festival, a large-scale effort took place to restructure the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the prime historical body of India’s government. ICHR has been stacked with right wing Hindu academicians of dubious distinction who wish to alter the history books to make them Hindu-centric, in so doing, depicting India as a “Hindu nation.” The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its patron Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has declared goal of establishing India a Hindu nation to which other faiths are subservient. Revisiting India’s history plays a key role in this project.
The silence of world’s largest literature festival on these issues is baffling. While the event drew a huge crowd, it remained mum on India’s biggest debates.
Doesn’t such a festival have a responsibility to engage young minds in informed and enlightened debate? How could the JLF, a premier festival devoted to literature, ignore some of the most pressing issues impacting Indian society? Not a single session was devoted to discussing Murugan, Doniger, or the ICHR, the most important topics agitating liberal thinkers in India.
Instead, the JLF plays to vanity and glamor. Big names and advertisement are the lifeblood of the festival, which finished its eighth iteration on Sunday.
The festival featured marquee names like Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam – India’s president from 2002 to 2007 who now has become a hit among students for his inspirational speeches – and Paul Edward Theroux, a prolific American travel writer.
In Caravan Magazine, Hartosh Singh Bal argued that the JLF catered to the message of Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s right wing Hindu government. By giving space to people like controversial entrepeneur Rajiv Malhotra, Bal suggests, the organizers are playing to communal politics. Bal also established a connection between Malhotra’s appearance and the influence of Dinanath Batra, responsible for the aforementioned attacks on Wendy Doniger.
If the JLF is a celebration of literature, it should also be a forum for questioning authority. Young minds that come to the festival from all over India need to be exposed to the value of non-conformist ideas.
The festival must distinguish itself from the annual Trade Fair in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, which also draws more than 200,000 people every day for two weeks. Fair-goers buy wares from some of India’s finest artisans. The JLF isn’t the same thing. It cannot treat its participants as passive consumers of the ideas on display: it must be a catalyst for debating and questioning the norms of Indian society and culture. Only then will it serve a greater purpose.