How the 'Intolerati' got the Bangalore Literature Festival: Sampath debate turns nasty ahead of LitFest

The spate of withdrawals and stepping-down associated with the Bangalore Literature Festival has sparked a verbal bloodbath in the media and on social media. Literary folks can be more expressive than most, and they are holding nothing back as they snipe, swipe, and take potshots at each other. As the editor of the cultural pages in The Indian Express many years ago, I have seen, up-close, how nasty this small circle of writers, artists, theatre actors, and the social butterflies that patronise them, can become. Now, social media and online news portals retain the nastiness and ruthlessness, but add immediacy.

To recap, a couple of writers had withdrawn from the Bangalore Literary Festival, objecting to the actions of one of its organisers, historian and writer Vikram Sampath. Sampath had done two things of which they didn’t approve. First, he had written an article saying why he would not return his own Sahitya Akademi award, which was perceived to be against the award-wapsi brigade. Second, he had signed an online petition with dozens of other eminent historians and archaeologists urging the government to consider alternative historical narratives. The latter was done in the wake of the Tipu Sultan controversy. His opponents did not agree. One of the writers who had boycotted the festival called Sampath “childish.” This had become personal.

 How the Intolerati got the Bangalore Literature Festival: Sampath debate turns nasty ahead of LitFest

The Bangalore Literature Festival kicks off on Saturday. Image from Facebook

Actor-director-writer Prakash Belavadi fired the first salvo on behalf of Sampath. Writing in The Bangalore Mirror, Belavadi announced that he stood with Sampath and agreed with what he said. In a very strongly-worded piece titled, How the ‘Intolerati’ Got Sampath, Belavadi minced no words when he said, “Bringing down BLF founder-organiser Vikram Sampath is brutal, barbaric, and censorious. It is an act of intolerance by 'liberals' who are like 'a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart'”

I linked Belavadi’s hard-hitting article to my Facebook wall, remarking that while I agreed with what he said, he was a brave man. The reason I said that is because Belavadi belongs to the community of the people he was writing about, although, to be honest, with a national award and roles in a couple of high-profile Hindi movies, he is more successful than many of his peers. And, in some circles, popular success does not always evoke admiration.

Activist-journalist Gauri Lankesh, in an article titled Oh Please, Vikram, Don’t Play The Victim in The Bangalore Mirror, said she was astonished at how facts are being misrepresented, opinions twisted, and victimhood appropriated. Generalising, she accused those supporting Sampath of not having read either the articles that Vikram had written or the letters sent by the three writers boycotting the festival. Remarking that Sampath  had some kind of fascination with sheep, she concluded, “Sampath, you are no sheep, so please don't pose as one forced to stand at the sacrificial altar.”

My Facebook post on Belavadi’s article invited attention from intellectuals, leftist and otherwise. In response, a national TV channel anchor posted links to articles that criticised Sampath, He wrote, “Read this very interesting and hard-hitting counter.” Another person posted multiple links of articles savaging Sampath. She said, “I hope you have the patience to read this.” Was this a campaign to discredit Sampath?

The protesting writers were criticised by many, most notably by fellow historian and writer Ramachandra Guha. He told The New Indian Express that the protests were an ill-judged boycott. He said, “To agree to speak and then pull out because one does not agree with the views of one of the organisers is to close off debate altogether. It displays, to use a word in vogue lately, intolerance.” Guha, in fact, had actually declined the invitation to the event as he was busy finishing a book. “The organisers have now renewed the invitation, and I have accepted,” he said.

On Tuesday, Sampath defended both his actions in an interview with Firstpost. During the interview, he regretted how difficult it was to be neutral in the intolerance debate that has polarised the intellectual right and left. “Most Indians are at the centre, they neither want to be left nor right. But that space at the centre has been hijacked, we need to recover it,” he said.

The level at which this debate is being conducted was never very high, but a Bangalore-based English professor set a new standard in name-calling in a social media post, which was reproduced on news website The News Minute. In the post, he refers to the shifting of the festival from the city outskirts to a hotel inside the city and practically accuses Sampath of trying to get publicity for the move. He wrote, “BLF used to be an Electronic City festival till last year… And now it's back in the city, in a nifty little star hotel. And you'd like us to notice. I see what you did there, you little PR Muffin.”

"Little PR muffin"?  Somewhere in all the verbiage, objectivity just died.

Updated Date: Dec 04, 2015 08:26:04 IST



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