Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Casualty of the Tolerance Stampede

In India, there was a recent movement of intellectuals to return their awards to protest the supposed rising tide of intolerance.  (This movement seems to have receded after the Bihar elections were completed, but that is another matter.) This tolerance herd caused the withdrawal of Vikram Sampath from the Bengaluru Literary Festival that he co-founded, because he didn't join their stampede.

Historian Vikram Sampath, wrote about this about the "Award Wapsi" movement:

Vikram Sampath | Why I won’t return my Akademi award

In the last few days, litérateurs of this country have received the most widespread media coverage. Their receiving the award from the Sahitya Akademi would not have made as much news as their returning it did. The hype continues as you read this. Writers like me who disagree with this mode of protest and expressed our opinion on social media were at the receiving end of reverse “liberal trolls”, branded as communal, fascist and bootlickers of the “despotic, intolerant and authoritarian” Modi regime. These epithets were hurled at us, ironically, in support of freedom of expression. I was reminded of what Bertrand Russell wrote in Unpopular Essays, “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

Vikram Sampath points out that the Sahitya Akademi is an autonomous organization "to work actively for the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards, to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages....” and that it would make more sense for writers to return their Padma awards, which come from the government. He also notes the lack of previous outrage.

As a creative person, the idea of a “ban” troubles me immensely. Just in the last two-three decades, several books have been banned by various state governments and the Union government: Early Islam by Desmond Stewart (1975), Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Edwards (1975), Who Killed Gandhi? by Lourenço de Salvador (1979), The Satanic Verses (1988) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), both by Salman Rushdie, Soft Target: How The Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada by Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew (1989), Understanding Islam Through Hadis by Ram Swarup (1991), Holy Cow: Beef In Indian Dietary Traditions by D.N. Jha (2001), Dwikhandito by Taslima Nasreen (2003), Shivaji: Hindu King In Islamic India by James Laine (2004), The True Furqan by Al Saffee and Al Mahdee (2005), The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2006), Islam: A Concept Of Political World Invasion by R.V. Bhasin (2007), Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence by Jaswant Singh (2009), and Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India by Joseph Lelyveld (2011). Writers like Rushdie and Nasreen are under threat in India. Rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were murdered in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and the latest in this sordid series is Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi. Academician and writer T.J. Joseph’s hand was chopped off by fundamentalists in 2010 in Kerala on allegations of blasphemy.

It is intriguing that the writer community was largely silent when books were banned, authors attacked, and rationalists killed. Why the selective outrage, as though apocalypse has descended on us as far as freedom of expression is concerned? Intolerance and violence against a contrary opinion is not a sudden phenomenon in India.

Communal riots have wounded our country for far too long. Writers have not taken actively consistent stands against governments that have remained silent about catastrophes like the Emergency, the horrific riots of Maliana, Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Godhra, the Delhi Sikh riots, displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, Graham Staines’ murder, the Bhopal gas tragedy, Babri Masjid demolition or Mumbai blasts.
Sampath concludes:
For me, my Sahitya Akademi award is a precious attestation of my work by my own community of writers and intellectuals, and the state of India, not its government. It was not given to me for being a political stooge. The best way to uphold freedom of thought, speech and expression from regimes of all orientations is to write, write, write.

Even as I see the next author resigning or returning their award, I am reminded of writer James Rozoff, who said, “Sheep only need a single flock, but people need two: one to belong to and make them feel comfortable, and another to blame all of society’s problems on.”

Then there is the controversy about whether Tipu Sultan should be commemorated.  Vikram Sampath wrote this:

Why we love to hate Tipu Sultan -- Karnataka’s Republic Day float featuring the ruler reignited an old controversy

Sampath notes both Tipu Sultan's progressive measures and his atrocities.

Tipu is still hated in many parts of Kerala, Coorg and Mangalore, where many remember his bigotry. Karnad dismisses this as merely “an 18th century reaction to an uprising”.

But these are facts of history that cannot be wished away, just as some of Tipu’s progressive measures are praiseworthy. The moot question is whether we need history and the characters of the past to create social harmony among communities today, and whether this harmony can be founded on falsehood. Bhyrappa earlier had a long war of words with Karnad, whom he accused of “whitewashing fanatics like Tipu and Muhammad bin Tughluq”, postulating that “nationalism can never be strengthened by projecting historical lies”.

With an acknowledgement of excesses and with no albatross of guilt on the members of any community today, one needs to move on. Glossing over history or, worse, creating a false one even as facts stare you in the face, is lethal. In between black and white is a huge continuum of grey, and being as human as any one of us, Tipu belongs to this zone of grey too.

The result of these two articles is that some of the tolerance brigade threatened to withdraw from the Bangalore Literary Festival, of which Vikram Sampath is a founder-director.

Vikram Sampath issued this press release:
Statement released to the media by one of the Festival's founder Directors- Vikram Sampath.

Over the past few days, I seem to have become the target of a personalized campaign that I believe is for two reasons. First, my personal view point on why I do not subscribe to the ‘Award Wapsi’ campaign. In an article I wrote in October 2015, I enumerated why I do not wish to give up my Sahitya Akademi award - one that has been given to me for my work by the people of India, judged by an independent jury of fellow writers and scholars and not a political party or Government. I had said then that it is a precious attestation of my work by my own community of writers and intellectuals and it was not given to me for being a political stooge. The best way to uphold freedom of thought, speech and expression from regimes of all orientations is to write, write, write. A view I continue to hold.

Second, was my stance on the recent Tipu Sultan controversy and a subsequent petition signed by me along with a group of very eminent historians, archaeologists, epigraphists and artists on the need for recognizing multiple view points and narratives in Indian historiography.

As someone who has researched the history of Mysore for over 15 years, I believe I am entitled to have an intellectual stand point on a matter of historical debate as also to this invaluable gift of freedom of expression that the founding fathers of this great country have fought hard to achieve for us.

I see from media reports and personal conversations in the last few days, that several of my fellow authors and speakers have cited these two instances as reasons for their withdrawal from participating in the upcoming edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF), an organization that I along with other citizens of Bengaluru founded in 2012. BLF is Bengaluru’s festival; it is a celebration of literature for the city. We are proud to have built it over the past years as India’s largest community funded literary event. The Festival has strived hard to maintain an independence and neutrality that is so hard to achieve in today’s market-driven ecosystem. The organizers and advisors, all eminent Bengalureans, believe and continue to believe that while the city of Bengaluru has its fair share of urban disasters and crumbling ‘hard’ infrastructure, forums like BLF are quintessential to create the ‘soft’ infrastructure where the city comes alive in open debate, discussions and dissent. By no yardstick of imagination was this ever “Vikram Sampath’s festival” as it is made out to be in the letters written by protesting writers and in the media. Anyone can evaluate the programming and the list of speakers in the last three editions and find that we have given equal space to all shades of opinion, irrespective of our personal views. I believe that this is what a literature festival needs to be, rather than reduce it to a cabal of participants and organizers who agree with each other on every point of view.

I now find this distressing scenario where my personal freedom of expression is coming in the way of the festival. Without getting into the finer details of nuance or metaphorical descriptions, my articles have been torn out of context and conclusions reached hastily. Names and labels have been attached carelessly without any evaluation of my past track record or body of work. I stand by my article(s) written in the past. I am not apologetic about them in any manner and will continue to cherish the freedom that my country gives me to air my opinion fearlessly.

However, in the interest of the organization that I founded and nurtured, which is now being linked to my personal views and targeted, I have taken the painful decision of stepping away from all responsibility of organizing the Festival. Since the protesting writers had a problem with my presence and involvement with the festival rather than the festival’s nature and character - I am sure they would not have agreed to participate in the first place if it was the latter, I am hopeful that my withdrawing of involvement will now make them more comfortable with participating. The festival and the ideals it has stood for are far greater than me or any individual – it would be a shame if because of me, differing views go unheard.

The Festival has always had a strong team running it, including the founding team of Shinie Antony, Srikrishna Ramamoorthy along with key advisor V Ravichandar - they will continue to lead the charge as the organizing committee. I am listed as a panelist in the festival programme. If the organizers want me to speak at the festival, I am happy to be there. Else, I will enjoy the sessions from home via live-streaming!

George Washington’s words ring in my ears: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”