In the end it ended peacefully enough, but for a while the final session of the Jaipur Literature Festival looked like it might conclude with hardcover books and well-heeled shoes being thrown. This is of course what happens when you put a literary-minded crowd in front of a panel with the deep-saffron Tarun Vijay on it debating whether “The war on terror has provoked a clash of civilisations”.
First of all, TV presenter Barkha Dutt, who was moderating, was stopped mid-sentence by British historian Simon Schama even before the debate had begun. He apparently had some objection to how she was introducing the topic; what he said was sotto voce, away from the microphone, but Dutt blew him away with blistering remarks on how ‘this is the way we do it in India’.
After this very promising beginning, the distinguished panelists one by one attacked the topic itself, rather than each other. Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif wondered how anyone can declare war on a noun. He however went on to speak about the fundamentalists in Pakistan who have declared war on the entire alphabet —they don’t want children to be educated, full stop.
Journalist and author M.J. Akbar traced the current instability in West and South Asia to the end of the Ottoman empire and colonialism. Social theorist Ashis Nandy recalled the satyagrahi Khudai Khidmatgars from India’s independence movement and said there are at least two potentialities in people and situations.
Columnist and political analyst Swapan Dasgupta ended his speech by asking people to lose their blinkers and see things for what they are. The man who brought matters to a simmer was RSS-BJP representative Tarun Vijay. He neatly divided the world between Hindus and barbarians, made nasty noises about secular people, and was booed by an audience that had its liberal credentials tested.
The question-answer session that followed was heated, and helped none by actor Anupam Kher, who sat in the audience and loudly passed judgement on statements of panelists. In the end, nothing was thrown, and people remained civil, so there was no clash of civilisations.
After the end, there was the after party — the real party at any event. This one was at Jaipur’s City Palace, and in those regal settings even risqué dances by beautiful women who on closer inspection proved to be men in backless ghagra-cholis was perfectly moral and civilised.