Organisers of Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) have always been a bit cowardly, vulnerable to both political blackmail and bad press.

The defining headline of their pusillanimity appeared in a Hindi daily in the winter of 2009: ‘Sahitya ke manch pe sharaab.’ The bout of hypocrisy was triggered by the moral Taliban in the media that was shocked by an innocuous sight: The great Vikram Seth sipping wine on the stage while answering questions.

Author Krishna Sobti once asked someone to show her one writer who wrote while sipping milk, underlining the relation between drinking and literature. Specifically, if press clubs across India were to ban alcohol, many media houses would be forced to hire special med staff to deal with an epidemic of post-withdrawal symptoms. So, the natural response of the JLF organisers to the unnecessary moralising would have been to raise the middle finger, double the supply of wine at the Festival and three loud cheers for Seth.

Curiously, wine disappeared from the venue the next morning. It was replaced by packaged water, still, not even sparkling. Seth, too, retreated into a shell, only to emerge two years later with a glass in hand, filled with clear liquid to come up with this gem: “Now I am careful. Nobody can tell if this is gin or water.”

The point is, if organisers of the JLF can be rattled by a few whining, er, whining journalists, what chance do they have when facing bigger, powerful adversaries — the sponsors, the government, the BJP and its ideological mentors, the RSS.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

So, this year, the RSS is making its debut at the JLF. And some of the regulars, the ones who led the award-wapsi campaign, are out. According to the Indian Express, among those taking centre-stage this year would be Akhil Bharatiya Prachar Pramukh Manmohan Vaidya and Sahsarkaryavah Dattatreya Hosabale. “It coincides with another development. Some of the most prominent writers of the award wapsi campaign that took place around the intolerance debate — including Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and K Satchidanandan, who have been JLF regulars — have apparently not been invited this year,” the newspaper reported.

In principle, RSS “litterateurs” have every right to interact with an audience, if not for anything else, at least because a literature festival is meant to celebrate freedom of expression. But, Vaidya and Hosabale should be under no illusion that they are getting the opportunity to participate because of their contribution to literature or for authoring bestsellers that have set the Amazon on fire. In fact, the entire Sangh Parivar can’t claim to have contributed even a fraction of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings that are read across the world.

The RSS “litterateurs” have been invited only because of the traditional Indian system of reservation, of accommodating some people on the high table because of who they are, not because of the merit of their work. Had Hosabale and Vaidya been such great writers, the organisers wouldn’t have waited for almost a decade to recognise their contribution or invite them. So, obviously, this is more a case of bending, curtseying and genuflecting before the powers that be. And, when you have the Zee group, headed by Subhash Chandra, sponsoring the event, a bit of tail-wagging in front of the hand that feeds the bone is understandable.

This is not the first time politicians have invaded the JLF and its dictated its agenda. In the past, the organisers have invited Kapil Sibal, Kapil Mishra and even Shazia Ilmi pontificate over literature. Even local politicians, like Vasundhara Raje and Ashok Gehlot, have often used the stage to add a bit of literary gravitas to their public persona. (I remember the shocked expression on Gehlot’s face when the discussion turned a bit colorful and some participants started using their favourite Indian maa-behen words).

The problem, of course, is the use of political clout to settle ideological scores. It is indeed a shame if some writers and authors have been blacklisted because they stood up against the BJP government for promoting a culture of intolerance by returning their awards. This is deplorable, a form of fascism that would one day remove all independent voices, leaving literature to the mercy of yes-men like Anupam Kher.

But, then nobody expects JLF organisers to stand up to political bullying. Courage of conviction has never been one of their virtues. When asked to bend, they generally end up banning a writer. A few years ago, when asked by the Congress-led Rajasthan government not to invite Salman Rushdie, the self-proclaimed patrons of free speech and independent thought had banned the controversial author from interacting with the audience through a video link from London.

They say, alcohol infuses some courage into the veins of the poltroon. Unfortunately, for organisers of the JLF, even that would not be a suitable prescription. Vikram Seth would agree.

First Published On : Dec 21, 2016 14:58 IST

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RSS makes debut at Jaipur Lit Fest: Using political clout to settle ideological scores is problematic