The campaigners against Vedanta at the literature festival in Southbank, London, this weekend undermined their cause by trying to shrink space for conversation and debate
On Saturday, 21 May, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) came to London, in its third year at the Southbank Centre. More than 40 writers were to speak in 20 sessions and there was music. But a shadow hung over the festival—among the sponsors this year was Vedanta, the controversial London-listed company that had its environmental clearance withdrawn in 2011 by the ministry of environment and forests in India, and which has been the target of human rights and environmental groups over its record (The Foil Vedanta campaign has outlined those on its website and Amnesty International published a report, Don’t Mine Us Out of Existence, in 2010). Prominent investors have divested its stock.
The gram sabhas of Niyamgiri had withheld permission for mining in the area as per the law, but state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation recently sought Supreme Court permission to reconvene the gram sabhas, presumably hoping for a different outcome. Vedanta, too, would like to resume operations. Earlier this month the Supreme Court rejected the petition, saying reconvening sabhas would “tantamount to infringement of the religious, community and individual rights of local forest-dwellers." The Dongria Kondh don’t want their sacred sites disturbed, and so it should be, if the principle of free, prior informed consent has any meaning.
Campaigners wrote to the participating authors, appealing that they withdraw from the festival. In the end, one writer withdrew; another said he was sad about the sponsorship but was in any case unable to travel due to health reasons; one writer-activist missed her flight. The rest came; some of us spoke about the issue in our sessions.
Soon after the opening speeches were made at the ballroom at Southbank Centre, I left for the author’s lounge to prepare what I wanted to say about festivals, boycotts, the role of companies and the rights of communities in a session I was to moderate that afternoon. As I left, several activists marched silently towards the stage, and once they reached the front, they faced the audience, raised their placards critical of the company, and raised slogans loudly, disrupting the programme that was to follow, a session on poetry.
Ruth Padel was one of the poets reading from her work at that session. She has a long record of supporting environmental and human rights causes. She said that when she accepted the invitation for the festival, she did not know that Vedanta was a sponsor. (Many of us didn’t). She decided to read a poem on environmental degradation, Apocalypse:
“… Planet Wildfire, degrading forests,
a global population which depends
on energy we are shriveling the earth to make,
the difference between ruin, which we can
rebuild, and rubble which we can’t."
Leading up to her poem, she had spoken about lakes of toxic red mud left in Odisha by Vedanta, and said Vedanta is “contributing to the end of the world", as well as to the villagers’ suffering in a major way. But it was difficult for many to hear her poem or her remarks, as the protestors were shouting slogans. Padel asked the protestors,wouldn’t they stay and hear what she had to say? But they said they wouldn’t; later she asked them if they had heard what she had actually said, and they hadn’t. She nonetheless tried to explain to the audience what the protests were about since she thought many in the audience would not know. “They were right to protest," Padel told me. But they weren’t there to listen.
Barkha Dutt, the television journalist and author, whose session was also interrupted, asked the protestors if they were willing to talk, but they kept shouting and screaming, she said.
Later, in a session on reporting from India, Dean Nelson, British journalist and South Asia specialist, spoke about his visit to Niyamgiri in 2006 when he interviewed three widows of anti-Vedanta campaigners who believed their husbands had been killed because of their opposition. “The sudden impact of wage labour was terrible—men developed drink problems, some said young women had been lured into prostitution," Nelson told me. “Before, they had lived an idyllic life in the forest."
When he went back to report the gram sabha vote which rejected mining, he was detained for several hours by the local police intelligence who wanted to know the names of everyone he had spoken to; they only backed down after a call to the ministry of external affairs. “The state government made its deal with Vedanta without considering the local people and then tried to bully them into submission to facilitate Vedanta. It took a lot of protest and international support for the Dongria Kondh to be allowed a voice," he said. “I don’t think JLF should have accepted their sponsorship; it was the beneficiary of marginalized people being denied the free expression Jaipur exists to celebrate," Nelson told me.
In the week before the festival, many of us received letters from a campaigner which argued why boycotting the festival was necessary. While the initial letter signed by activists and authors calling for a boycott focused on Vedanta’s record, this letter went on to criticize festivals in general, suggesting that festivals like the one at Jaipur peddle Indian exotica abroad for an elite audience. I disagree with that assertion. I have been to the festival in Jaipur twice, and I don’t see it to be particularly elite—it is free; last year, more than 300,000 people attended the festival, and only a few of them were foreigners or elite; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of school children attend each year; true, there are tickets for lunches and dinners and for attending music sessions in the evening, and presumably only those who are able to afford the tickets can participate in such activities. But it is possible for a poor student to attend the festival for all five days and listen to the world’s leading authors as well as India’s leading writers, including from many Indian languages, without paying a paisa for the events themselves. My most memorable encounters have been with young students, keen to write, brimming with ideas, who want to stay in touch, sending their essays and stories for me to read and react.
I had to balance the call for boycott of the festival, made by people who represented those that were directly affected by the activities of one sponsor, with my belief in making use of the platform to say what I intended to say. Is my use of that space more important than the space denied to people in India fighting such projects, I’m asked. My response is—would my non-participation, and not speaking about it to an audience that did not know about the issues, advance the cause of those denied their voice?
I do not believe in cultural boycotts. They often penalize the very constituency that needs allies in their struggle for change, and often it can be a liberal community in an authoritarian society. Targeted economic sanctions and divestment campaigns chosen strategically are a different matter. I recall that a few years ago, British writers were debating whether to boycott the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka because of the horrendous human rights record of the Rajapaksa government. I was on the board of English PEN then, and some authors asked us what they should do; our suggestion was that they should go if they wished to, but to use the platform to raise cases of missing Sri Lankan journalists and call for investigation and prosecution of cases where journalists and writers were being murdered.
You are complicit if you go along with the master narrative as a cheer-leader; you aren’t if you speak out. But some protestors at Southbank began to see the narrative in “us-vs-them" terms. If they had attended the session I moderated with the courageous Israeli writer, Gideon Levy (in which Barkha Dutt and Shatrughan Sinha also participated), they would have seen how powerful the voice of dissent is, and why it must be allowed to speak. Levy spoke powerfully about the need to speak truth to power—his career is a living example of that. He has been threatened, he has been shot at, and he is deeply unpopular among conservative Israelis because he humanizes the Palestinian tragedy and continues to embarrass the militarized Israeli state. I had asked him and other panelists if Israel and India pass Natan Sharansky’s Town Square Test—the test of a free society is if you can go to the town square and criticize the government without fear, and nothing happens to you later. It is about freedom of speech, but also about freedom after speech. Levy said Israel fails that test, citing the example of a Palestinian poet who is in jail because of her words, which the state says glorify violence.
When I asked Dutt the same question, she said India passed the test, though I disagreed. I pointed out how voices critical of the current development model are treated in India—either by being prevented from flying abroad, as in the cases of Priya Pillai and Gladson Dungdung, or being hounded out of Chhatisgarh, as had happened to Malini Subramaniam of Scroll.in. Other journalists have been threatened with violence; a few have been killed.
As for the festival and boycotts, here’s what I said: No corporation should begin any economic activity without the informed consent of the affected parties, and no force should be used at any stage. I speak with some experience—over the years, I have reported on, and observed, similar situations in Nigeria, Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa, and elsewhere, where companies have come into conflict with communities, and the state has sided with the company. Companies aren’t “good" or “bad"; their actions are. But I stressed that boycotts prevent voices from being heard. If the movement to boycott Israel on cultural and academic grounds succeeds, we wouldn’t have writers like Levy or scholars like David Shulman speaking at international fora.
I’m of course aware that my remarks won’t change anything. Ruth Padel reminded me late Saturday evening what Seamus Heaney has written—no poem ever stopped a tank, but poems do make people think. Stopping conversations at festivals is an attack on thought.
Festival organisers, of course, need to be far more conscious of whose support they seek. There is no exact science about it, and there is no objective list of companies which are “good" to raise funds from; festival organisers will have to assess the risks. The Jaipur Literature Festival is not alone in this context—other festivals, too, face these agonizing choices. The risk they must assess is not only to their reputation, but to the ideals that the festival supports—participation, inclusiveness, diversity, democratization, and free speech. I appreciate it isn’t cheap to run a festival; it costs money. But a festival that wants to uphold certain values has to be acutely conscious of who its supporters are. It isn’t an easy task, and the alternative—of relying on governments—poses its own dangers.
The campaigners have a legitimate role, in exposing corporate, societal, or government wrongdoing. But they do not have the monopoly of answers. If they are so convinced that the solution they believe in as the ideal one is indeed the best, then they leave no room for disagreement. Such certainty can be dangerous. It can lead one to believe that you are right and the others are wrong. And if the others aren’t for them or with them, then they can only be against them—and in effect, for the corporation—casting it in Manichaean terms. I would have thought they wouldn’t see the world in such clean binaries; this is the language of the land of Chup , not Gup, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The activists were right to protest, right to call for a boycott, and right to picket. They would also be right to protest at a corporate annual general meeting. But they undermine their cause by trying to shrink space for conversation and debate.
We live in a fragile time for free speech—governments, corporations, religious groups, vigilantes and cultural conservatives all want to deny platforms to writers. Shrinking spaces where debates and discussions are possible is wrong. Activists who struggle for causes they consider important should know that they aren’t alone in their struggle, even though others in that struggle may pursue different means to get there.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. He is the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International.