The obvious summer destination for the literati is London, where “the greatest literary show on earth”, of course, Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), opens its miniature edition in the cultural district by River Thames on May 21. It has been the talk of the town and some envy those who are to feature in the limited edition abroad. Colourful graphics of the festival’s promising and eastern extravaganza seem most alluring. Just when one thought that cool literary breeze was blowing all the way from South Bank to the sun-scorched May in the city, it seems hot springs have erupted by the Thames. Hot springs are supposed to have healing qualities but for the moment the hot bubbles are scald in the form of an open letter being circulated widely by email.
The one that reaches my mailbox is forwarded by writer-researcher Kavita Bhanot, who is based in London but a familiar figure in the city and Punjab literary circles. It is addressed to the writers attending Vedanta JLF Southbank 2016 and cries out: “From Niyamgiri Mountain to River Kafue calling Vedanta to justice.” It also makes a strong effort at jerking the literary conscience, saying: “Literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As public figures, we believe that writers and artists also have responsibilities. It makes little sense to discuss books and ideas and the problems of the world in abstraction, while being funded by and publicising a company that has been and continues to be a gross violator of human rights across the world. We hope that you agree, and will withdraw from involvement in this discredited and damaging PR campaign, rather than lending your name to it.”
The letter indicts Vedanta in no uncertain terms: “Jaipur Literature Festival is claiming to be ‘The Greatest Literary Show on Earth’, which has ‘the world’s most hated company’, Vedanta, as its key sponsor. Are you aware that Vedanta’s activities are destroying the lives of thousands of people in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka, and Punjab as well as in Zambia, South Africa and Australia? Are you also aware that Zambian villagers are taking Vedanta subsidiary KCM to court currently in the UK, accusing it of poisoning their water consistently over the last decade?” The letter also cites its activities in Chhatisgarh, Odisha, and Goa.”
The letter further says: “The Vedanta JLF at South Bank is yet again another cynical attempt to distract attention from Vedanta’s crimes at a time when it stands exposed across India and internationally. Vedanta’s interests are opposed directly to the Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan Samaj, and black communities it claims to be helping.” Now this is something that will have the organisers as well as the writers, participating in the limited edition meant to give Londoners a taste of the larger festival at Jaipur, worried. Will it be festivity over socio-political consciousness? Some of the big names featuring in it are: “K Satchidanandan, Namita Gokhale, Jerry Pinto, Salil Tripathi, Meghnad Desai, Rakshanda Jalil, Patrick French, John Elliott, Dean Nelson, Suzan Stronge, and many others.”
It may be remembered that K Satchidanandan and Ashok Vajpeyi, poets of eminence, had said they would boycott Zee Jaipur Literature Festival because of the doctoring of the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) tapes. Not many seconded them and, as far as the organisers are concerned, they are bound deeply by contract. This may well be the outcome at Sountbank but the protest has an international focus anyway. It would be interesting to know if any of the participating writers signed the open letter or withdrew because of it.