The Thought Police in Jaipur

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And why the LitFest needs liberal middle-class support

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival was all set to open at Diggi Palace. The carpets had been rolled out, the elephants brushed, and the carriages—or in this case the golf carts—polished and kept ready to cart tens of thousands of visitors. Unlike the previous year, which was partly spent negotiating with sundry government and Muslim agencies on the imminent arrival or non-arrival of Salman Rushdie, this year there wasn’t a proverbial cloud in the sky. It seemed like the festival would roll out peacefully. (Wishful thinking, but then this is sadda India.)

As we headed to the pre-opening dinner at the opulent Rambagh Palace, the only controversial issue seemed to be the imminent arrival of Pakistani authors and musicians. Various political groups had sent representations saying we should not give them a platform.

We responded by saying that we did not agree that writers could be marked by national identity. These groups then accepted our submission, and their youth downgraded their protest to a peaceful demonstration. 

The opening day began with a burst of nagaras in the presence of Rajasthan’s Governor and Chief Minister. A hard-hitting speech by Margaret Alva about intolerance and the need for the arts to be free and unfettered was followed by an impassioned keynote address by the legendary Mahasweta Devi, who argued that the right to dream should be a citizen’s first fundamental right. A crush of people followed, including 800 Tibetans who came to be blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who came, spoke and conquered the hearts of those who heard him. The next day, Rahul Dravid entertained the crowds. (In private, Dravid said that he thought he would be speaking to a group of 100 or so people sipping wine and nibbling on cheese sticks, but instead there were more people than in many stadiums he had played in.)

Day three was Republic Day, which appeared to arrive with some relief. In spite of the record number of visitors, the venue was calm. But, unknown to me, the great Indian time bomb had begun ticking. I received an SMS from an author asking me to come to a session venue as he suspected that there was a new controversy brewing. The media in attendance began broadcasting a statement by Ashis Nandy out of context, and soon Mayawati had called a press conference, the Minority Commission had denounced what had been said, and a media storm had broken out.

A local leader arrived at the scene (roughing up two women in the registration area as he swept through imperiously to protest).The police requested that I speak to him, and I asked him to come with us and talk to Nandy and understand the argument that he and Tarun Tejpal had made that morning. Aided by well-meaning police officers who had to rush back from the Governor’s Republic Day open house, negotiations and discussions were amicably concluded—or so we thought. The local politician appeared to understand what we were trying to tell him, but then he went to the media, denounced Nandy, and called for his immediate arrest.

What Nandy had said was this: “It will be an undignified and vulgar statement, but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs, the SCs and now increasingly STs,” referring to ‘Other Backward Classes’, ‘Scheduled Castes’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’. “As long as this is the case,” he said, “the Indian republic will survive.”

We soon organised a press conference for Nandy to clear the air, with both Tejpal and Urvashi Butalia present as they were both part of the same panel discussion. Nandy began with an apology to anyone whose sentiments he may have hurt, and went on to explain the argument he had made. It seemed that this storm would blow over.

Hours later, we were told that FIRs had been filed in a police station and we had to hand over the DVD and any other material we had on the session in question. Nandy’s family in Delhi and Mumbai were extremely worried and were keen that he return to Delhi as he had health problems. While Nandy and his wife were not inclined to leave at all, his son-in-law Pratyush and brother Pritish felt they would be better off at home with a doctor on close call.

Back in Diggi Palace, protests were spiralling out of control. FIRs were being filed across the country—in Jodhpur, Patna and Nashik, among other places. Payal Chawla and our other legal partner flew to Jaipur and went into a huddle. Despite my pleas not to overreact, they refused to listen to me and swung into action to move the High Court the next day, to stay my supposed arrest. The police meanwhile stepped up their efforts to fasttrack the inquiry. Sheuli Sethi, our festival producer, spent hours putting together the required documentation, transcribing the session with a foreword to ensure that there was no further misunderstanding on the issue. The police asked us not to leave the city without permission and had us sign affidavits to this effect. Some of our well-wishers felt we should leave immediately, in case we had to face arrest in the middle of the night. Much of this seemed to be out of a movie. I had to draw the line and state that given our own stand that we must work within the law, there was no question of fleeing, irrespective of the consequences. Many festivals supporters had already pledged that they would march in thousands to the police station with nagaras, musicians and elephants—a right royal Mughal procession seemed to be in the making.

The day after the festival, the police called to say that they had no need to hold us any longer and we could leave by the evening. Hours later, our lawyers who had moved the court received a favourable order—which continues to hold at the time of writing this—providing us a seven-day notice period before a possible arrest. Our bayaans (statements) have been recorded (in English), and we are now free to travel as we wish. Nandy’s own legal team headed by Gaurang Kanth approached the Supreme Court for relief, which was immediately granted, thereby staying his arrest.

Should thinkers, authors and their like not be allowed to express themselves on intellectual platforms without the fear of being marched off to jail?

In India, the ‘thought police’ seem to hold more and more sway by the year. A motley group of people are effectively able to hijack the liberal agenda by posing as representatives of their community. Considering that over 160,000 people trooped through the portals of Diggi Palace, why should 15 people protesting in a huddle count for more than those who took part in the primary festival?

Given that the JLF is now seen as a platform for smaller disaffected groups to find their voices and register their protests, should this be given precedence over some of the extraordinary names that gather in Jaipur to read, discuss and debate a variety of issues? Is it that we don’t have enough platforms whereby disaffected voices can be heard by the national media?

Why is it that only artists are targeted or banned or have their work attacked again and again? One rarely hears demands for a politician to be banned, let alone a businessman or lawyer. Artists are high-visibility and low-utility, making for a perfectly soft target.

As for the disenfranchised community leaders who were so quick to take umbrage over misrepresented words, what stopped them from establishing factual errors in Nandy’s statement? Through the din of shrill protest, they were silent about the heart of the matter.

This is India, where there are no answers. We live in a country that exists across multiple centuries and realities at the same time. We need to negotiate with conflicting groups, ideologies and viewpoints. More importantly, it is imperative that the liberal middle-class emerges from its silence and draws a line in the sand, one that ensures that we don’t get bullied and our agenda of belonging to a plural, democratic India that stands for freedom of thought and expression is not negotiable. India is an unfinished story. If we want to head towards a happy ending, we need to fight for our freedom, or else we stand to mortgage it.