On the last day of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), writer Taslima Nasrin made an unexpected appearance. The session she spoke at was titled Exile, but her name did not appear on the programme. The session went off without incident (albeit under police protection) but, as word got around of Nasrin’s presence, a group of Islamic fundamentalists accosted the festival’s directors who, unnerved, made a promise not to invite her again without prior permission (from the fundamentalists, that is).
The next day, after the writers and publishers had departed for their respective hometowns and countries, a film crew from Mumbai began work in Jaipur. They were shooting scenes for Padmavati, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The crew and their equipment were set upon by angry bigots, speaking in the name of Rajput pride. Bhansali and his team fled in panic to Mumbai. The vandals were briefly detained by the police, but released within a few hours.
Reading about these incidents in Bengaluru, I wrote to JLF’s organisers, urging them to press the chief minister of Rajasthan to come out squarely in defence of the freedom of writers, artists and filmmakers. The JLF had been patronised and even inaugurated by the CM. To be sure, the organisers needed the logistical support of the state government; but the state needed the JLF too, as a boost to its tourist economy. Here was a chance to push Rajasthan’s CM and government to encourage artistic creativity not just for one week in the year, but for the other 51 weeks as well. If Vasundhara Raje would not act, the JLF should, I said, publicly condemn the vandalism themselves.
Sadly, the JLF’s organisers stayed silent. Then, in early February, a university in Jodhpur hosted a conference, where one of the speakers was Nivedita Menon of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Menon referred to the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, attracting a howl of rage from hyper-patriots, who forced the university authorities to file a police complaint against her. Later, in an act of vindictiveness, the lecturer who organised the conference was suspended.
I have spoken of three recent attacks on freedom of expression in one state, Rajasthan; but of course such attacks happen all over the country, and under all kinds of governments. Indian writers should never forget that it was Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress that banned The Satanic Verses even before Iran did, and that it was professedly literature-loving communist chief ministers who first banned Taslima’s books and had her externed from West Bengal. Hindutva-wadis, Shiv Sainiks and caste chauvinists may have taken this intolerance further and made it more violent; yet it was the Congress and the Left that opened the door.
Indeed, it is the Left’s dogmatism in the past that has enabled and encouraged the Right’s bigotry in the present. Those who endorsed the central government’s savage attack on JNU in 2016 took legitimacy from students and faculty in JNU seeking to disallow Baba Ramdev from speaking on campus. Ramdev may be no scholar; but in fact JNU has long been suspicious even of academics who challenge the university’s ruling certitudes. Several departments in JNU have been dominated by a monochromatic Marxism; one being so narrow-minded that (as I recall) they would not allow a scholarly discussion on the Narmada Andolan, since environmentalism was a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle.
When it comes to promoting freedom of expression, when it comes to encouraging intellectual debate and diversity, we cannot expect principled or consistent support from any of our politicians or political parties. Jyoti Basu would have been happy to be photographed with Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but he would shun Taslima Nasrin. Vasundhara Raje will attend the JLF in January; but once the festival ends, acquiesce in her partymen’s physical attacks on scholars and filmmakers, with her government’s police force looking on.
But surely writers, scholars, and artists should not be nervous about offending political patrons, nor ask that only their ideological kinsmen enjoy full intellectual or artistic freedom. They should stand together in solidarity, not pick and choose whom to defend and whom to ignore. Exemplary in this regard is the conduct of Rajshree Ranawat, the scholar who organised the seminar in Jodhopur where Nivedita Menon spoke. Menon is a Left-wing feminist; notably, among the other people invited to the conference was the Hindutva historian Y Sudershan Rao. Further, Ranawat also invited scholars who are neither Left nor Right, but liberal centrists. Her brave, admirable, endeavour was to expose her students to a wide diversity of scholarly opinion.
Now Ranawat has been suspended. But her fellow writers and scholars must not forget her. Indeed, we must emulate and honour her. Perhaps the JLF’s organisers should invite Rajshree Ranawat to inaugurate their festival in 2018.