Of course I sign e-mail petitions if I strongly agree with the cause they are pushing. I have spent a lifetime protesting against injustices in ineffectual ways — walking miles on demonstrations, shouting myself hoarse outside the British Parliament and law courts, calling attention to objectionable social or political behaviour through pamphleteering and agitating. The thing about protest politics is that one never knows if it has hit the target or how effective it has been. These signatures and protests certainly signal the signatory’s virtue, but do they achieve results? I am not saying they don’t — I just don’t know — though I do know that terror achieves its aim of terrorising and then mobilising attention and resources that may be spent better elsewhere.
These thoughts are occasioned by a letter e-mailed to me by a Mumbai friend condemning the London chapter of this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) and asking the invited writers to boycott it. The email says the JLF has accepted money from Vedanta, the global mining corporation. The signatories to the petition contend that Vedanta is an exploitative, wholly nasty and ruthless company that stands accused and convicted of criminal acts.
The organisers of the JLF on London’s Southbank replied to this email through the press. They insist that they are a platform for free expression and that the sponsors who pay for their festival do not have any influence over who is invited or what is said in the session. The protestors disagree. Their contention is that “literature does not exist in a vacuum, and neither does ‘free and frank discussion’. Content cannot be separated from sponsorship; it will influence the orientation of programming. In any case, the unaddressed fact remains, that in accepting Vedanta sponsorship the festival is promoting the company, and actively supporting its efforts to whitewash its crimes.”
There is ample evidence that Vedanta stands accused in courts and in copious publications of the violation of human rights, of carelessness as to the safety of its workers, of not paying them, of illegal deforestation and crimes against the environment. Very many respectable organisations, including The Rowntree Trust and the Church of England, have withdrawn their investments from Vedanta. The accusations and proven crimes of Vedanta are attested to and the list is as lengthy as a Ram-Leela Ravan’s arm. I am also sure that the directors of the festival, Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy, the festival’s spokesman, accepted Vedanta’s sponsorship in full knowledge of these legal convictions and other alleged misdemeanours.
I have, as a writer, appeared on several of the JLF’s platforms, reading my work, even talking about being a Parsi writer and interviewing VS Naipaul. Last year I was invited to participate in the Southbank Jaipur Fest and did. I have no idea who sponsored that festival or the earlier ones to which I was invited but, since I didn’t meet with any demonstrations or receive any letters asking me to boycott the event, I conclude that the sponsors were wholesome capitalists or individuals.
On each of the times I was invited there was never any attempt to editorially influence what I would say or how I would say it and I have never heard from any participants of any influence the sponsors could have had over the content of their presentations. (One of the organisers did say to one of the participants he approached “Dhondy? He is not an intellectual!” — a remark for which I was wholly grateful as only Frenchmen and Bengalis would describe themselves as “intellectuals”).
The JLF in its original location is a high-profile event. The Southbank one less so. I genuinely wonder how many people participating in or attending these festivals pay any attention to the logos of sponsors printed on the programmes. Now if a prominent, world-wide fried chicken franchise was handing out free samples of their product at the event, I would certainly have noticed and I may even have acquired a taste for the fatty, unhealthy product and patronised their branches subsequently. But how would I, or anyone for that matter, support Vedanta? Will the company advertise themselves as patrons of literature in order to attract and get capital investment? Is that the benefit they hope to get?
On this occasion I won’t stand outside the Royal Festival Hall on the Thames Southbank carrying a placard or shouting slogans. Such a demonstration will certainly embarrass the organisers, the writers who attend and the controllers of the Southbank complex which houses the festival. I look forward to the row in the British press.
I have, though, a suggestion for my friends, the organisers. Why not invite a severe environmental critic of Vedanta and of other despoilers of the planet onto one or more platforms in the interest of “free thought and expression”? It will prove the bona fides of the JLF platform, spread awareness about the bad practices of Vedanta to a much wider audience and possibly get a reaction from Vedanta, which would signal their motivations.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London . The views expressed are personal.