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Why it is fashionable to attack the Jaipur Literature Festival

Literature festivals certainly make for strange bedfellows. The Jaipur Literature Festival has not even opened its doors yet. But it’s managed to unite Muslim clerics and RSS honchos in bristling outrage.

But here’s the even bigger takeaway from their latest round of fulminations - the ban-baaja-baraat brigade has become brand conscious.

It’s clear they don’t want to waste their time on chhota mota lit fests when they can train their fire on the mother of them all – the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Members of a Muslim organisation that protested Salman Rushdie's participation in the JLF. Reuters.

“Jaipur is the Ibiza of literature,” writes Anuvab Pal on Newslaundry. “The intellectual equivalent of a weekend of mad clubbing. Hemingway famously used to go out at night specifically to look for a fight. Sadly, 21st century’s writers are far more civil and middle class, they come to Jaipur.”

Pal might get his wish. You can come to Jaipur AND look for a fight. Islamic clerics and RSS busybodies are proudly following in Hemingway’s footsteps. Jaipur, for them, is also the place to be seen at, the palace to be stormed.

They are going through the festival line up just like thousands of wanna-be writers, literary paparazzi and on-deadline journalists. While one group is strategizing the best itinerary, and hyperventilating over anxiety-inducing questions to be asked to the likes of Pico Iyer or Mahasweta Devi, the other group is trying to figure what it can picket, disrupt, protest.

“Looking at the present Indo-Pak relations, it is unacceptable to allow Pakistani writers here as guests. As of now we are  politely saying that their names should be dropped from the list of invitees,” Suman Sharma, the BJP state vice president told the Indian Express. “If that is not done, we will make sure they are not allowed to enter Rajasthan.” Their participation “is not in the country’s interest at the moment” the RSS told the Times of India.

Not to be outdone in the gag-them, ban-them competitive intolerance relay race, scholars attending the Azmat-E-Namoos-E-Rasool (Respect and Honour of Prophet Muhammad) conference  in Jaipur took time out to scour the Jaipur Literature Festival website as well. And they came up with some evergreen targets of ire – those who dared read from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses last time around and then had to leave town under threat of arrest.

“These authors have violated Indian law by reading out passages from a banned book,” Sajid Sehrai organizer of the conference told the Times of India. “It calls for legal action against them.” He demanded none of the four be allowed to set foot in Jaipur.

Only one from his gang of four, Jeet Thayil, author of the Man Booker shortlisted Narcopolis, is supposed to be at Jaipur. The Muslim groups, and the media, mistakenly put Ruchir Joshi’s name out as well. But that was a mix-up. The actual attendee was the very much non-Satanic-Verses-reading Ruchir Sharma. It all goes to prove that Shakespeare was completely wrong – there is something in a name, a Ruchir by any other name does not offend as much.

This comedy of errors would be very funny if it was not for the fact that this tiresome tit for tat game of  if-you-ban-this, you-must-ban-that shows no signs of abating. “The hate speech by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi was vociferously condemned by us,” Mujahid Naqvi of the Mili Council told the media. “He was arrested for the same but why does the same law not apply to (the writers who read from Satanic Verses). Both have hurt the sentiments, but why is one penalized while the others enjoy support from a section on the pretext of a ‘right to express their views’?”

The likes of Naqvi obviously cannot see that a literature festival of all things could actual be an arena where both sides could “express their views”. Those who bristle and say there is a world of difference between election year opportunism of playing the Rushdie card  and demanding Pakistani theatre groups and hockey teams and writers leave the country in the aftermath of the beheading of the Indian soldier miss the point that it’s all part of the same slippery slope. If you justify one excuse to ban a Pakistani writer today, you just pave the way to ban another Indian writer tomorrow on some other pretext. And it’s no point crying foul then because the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Every time we have yielded ground, the monster has come back bigger, stronger and quicker to take offence.

Sanjoy Roy, the JLF’s organizer, says this time around the Jaipur Literature Festival was not going to back down and allow the fringe elements to hijack it. “We should not entertain war mongering, Pakistani authors will come to Jaipur Lit fest,” he told CNN-IBN. “We will not be bullied by threats,” he told Barkha Dutt on NDTV.

Perhaps JLF can try something different this year.  Instead of an Authors XI vs Rajasthan Royals XI cricket match as planned how about an Extremists vs Fundamentalists limited overs game? The rest of us can go to a literature festival while they argue about who gets to field at silly point.

 Full disclosure: The author is moderating a panel at the 2013 Jaipur Literature Festival.

 

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