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The two JLF controversies that you must know about

When some of the world's best creative minds, known for vociferously thinking out loud, are put together for discussions, bold expressions and radical thoughts are expected outcomes. And the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has, over time, proved to be one such occasion.

books Updated: Jan 20, 2015 23:54 IST
Abhishek Saha

When some of the world's best creative minds, known for vociferously thinking out loud, are put together for discussions, bold expressions and radical thoughts are expected outcomes. And the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has, over time, proved to be one such occasion.

Since its first edition in 2006, the JLF has been dotted with intellectually stimulating sessions that have often elicited sharp responses from the panelists, be it a spat between Dalit scholar Kancha Illaiah and Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar over the role of religion in society or novelist Jeet Thayil reading out a certain Hindi-swear-word-loaded section from his Booker short-listed novel Nacropolis.

But out of all such incidences, two episodes in the Festival's nine-year run have made the biggest headlines-one involving the proposed visit of Salman Rushdie and the protests that ensued, and the other about a comment made by sociologist Ashish Nandy on the involvement of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in corruption cases.

When Salman Rushdie almost visited JLF
Ever since The Satanic Verses was published in UK and banned in India in 1988, its author Salman Rushdie has been a target of Islamic fundamentalists who found the novel blasphemous. In 1989, a fatwa was issued against Rushdie by Iraniann leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini asking Muslims to kill Rushdie. Copies of the book were burnt and book stores bombed in many countries. In fact, the Japanese translator of the book was murdered, the Italian translator seriously wounded and an attempt was made to nab and kill the Turkish translator.

The twenty-seven year old controversial book came back to hound Rushdie when he was about to visit the 2012 edition of the JLF. Rushdie, who had spoken at the 2007 JLF, was all set to attend the 2012 Festival when he pulled back citing protests from top Muslim organisations and intelligence inputs that "paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to 'eliminate'" him.

At that point, it was decided that Rushdie would speak at the JLF through a video link on the concluding day of the festival. However, it was called off as hardliner groups continued with their protests against the author and threatened to disrupt the Festival if the video conference took place.

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Book cover of The Satanic Verses

Even as debates raged on regarding freedom of speech and Rushdie's right to security, a conspiracy theory was given steam by Rushdie himself. He tweeted that the information regarding hitmen trying to kill him was a lie by the Rajasthan government to keep him away from the Festival. The Rajasthan government denied the conspiracy charges and clarified that the information was passed on from the sleuths under the Central government in Delhi. Even Maharashtra government denied giving Rushdie any information regarding the mafia targeting him.

What added to the Rushdie-JLF controversy of 2012, was that four reputed authors Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar, and Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi read out from The Satanic Verses at two different sessions of the JLF provoking security threats and law-and-order problems. The four writers had to hastily leave the Festival soon after.

Later, in an article in the Guardian, novelist Hari Kunzru explained why he and Amitava Kumar chose to read out from the banned book. He wrote:

"Our intention was not to offend anyone's religious sensibilities, but to give a voice to a writer who had been silenced by a death threat. Reading from another one of his books would have been meaningless. The Satanic Verses was the cause of the trouble, so The Satanic Verses it would have to be. We did not choose passages that have been construed as blasphemous by Muslim opponents of the book…"

The Ashish Nandy controvery
Speaking at a session titled "Republic of Ideas" at the JLF 2013, Nandy made the following comment:

"It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive."

Nandy, a scholar whose work has been profoundly marked by a pro-Dalit and backward-classes sentiment for more than 30 years, suddenly found himself in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. The media picked up the singular statement and gave it a certain anti-backward-classes interpretation. There were nation-wide protests against the sociologist, calling for immediate action for such a blatant anti-SC/ST comment. An FIR was filed against Nandy and festival producer Sanjoy Roy under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by Rajpal Meena, state president of the National Union of Backward Classes, SC, ST and Minorities.

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Ashish Nandy

In a press conference, immediately after the controversy broke out, Nandy explained his statement and said, "I said that if people like me or Richard Sorabji [who was a fellow panelist] want to be corrupt, I shall possibly send his son to Harvard giving him a fellowship and he can send my daughter to Oxford. No one will think it to be corruption. Indeed, it will look like supporting talent. But when Dalits, tribals and OBCs are corrupt, it looks very corrupt indeed. However, this second corruption equalises. It gives them access to entitlements, allows the underprivileged to partake of the loot. And as long as this equation persists, I have hope for the republic."

Nandy left Jaipur soon after, skipping the rest of the Festival. The police obtained the video recording of his talk as well as his written notes.

The Outlook magazine published a transcript of the parts of "Republic of Ideas" relevant to the Ashish Nandy controversy with a foreword by Nandy, panellists Urvashi Butalia and Ashutosh, and moderator Tarun Tejpal.

The foreword noted, "The statement that is being interpreted as offensive therefore has been taken wrongly out of context. It was part of a larger argument Ashis Nandy was making that corruption should not be read in narrow terms and sometimes can be an important social mechanism to correct the wrongs of history. In his reading the social churn is more important to India's health just now than a perfect corruption-free society."