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Jaipur Litfest hijacked by anti-CAA rhetoric

by Prakash Bhandari in Jaipur

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which in recent years acquired the reputation as one of the biggest literary fiesta sadly became a platform this time for the  authors and speakers to air their views on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC, the two political issues that have caused a storm in India. Books and literature then did not get its due. Even Rajasthan Patrika, with multiple editions in northern India, which was a major sponsor of the JLF, summed up the January 23-27 litfest as an event where CAA and NRC prevailed over literature and the majority of the speakers were against CAA and the NRC. This coming from a sponsor left the organizers pondering over the structure of JLF.

Makarand Paranajpe, writer and academic who is Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, however, feels that it would be incorrect to say that the JLF has no writers of note or that it is purely a political platform for the lost Lutyen souls.

“It has plenty of good writers from all over the world. There are synergies and exchanges that promote the pursuit of literature and the arts. JLF is a hugely successful demonstration of India’s soft power. It has proved that we  can be world leaders, even world-beaters in this field,” said Paranajpe.

The festival was inaugurated by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot  was there in two sessions. Gehlot praised the festival that gives an opportunity to the fearless to speak their mind, and used the opportunity himself to take a gentle dig at PM Narendra Modi  when he said, “mann ki baat, kami kit baat bhi honi chhahiye.” Gehlot insisted that the Modi government should listen to the voices of intellectuals, writers and poets and their mann ki baat too.

On the very first day of the festival, actor and director Nandita Das dropped the bombshell by openly criticizing the Modi government  on the issues related to CAA and the NRC. Prasoon Joshi, the poet and lyricist, took the baton from her to air his critical views. This soon changed the complexion of the festival  and other speakers held forth on Savarkar and the holy cow and of course slamming the Modi government. Even Prasoon Joshi, who is also the chief of Censor Board, was booed when he said Prime Minister Modi wanted nothing for himself and he was working day and night for India’s welfare.

Former Union minister Margaret Alva, who served as the governor of  Rajasthan and who was to speak on the Constitution changed the track and spoke about how the Modi government was working for effecting  a Hindu-Muslim divide.

While the Niti Aayog chief Amitabh Kant was trying to convince the audience on Swachha Bharat, filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj, who was invited to speak on his films, digressed hugely to speak on how the CAA and the NRC would help the divisive forces in the country. He accused the Modi government of threatening the writers and authors who came out in open to criticize CAA and NRC.

Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, the author of “Good Economics For the Hard Time”, did not directly take on the Modi regime but did say  that the current slowdown in the economy will adversely impact poverty alleviation in the country as urban and rural sectors are interdependent. “We are in deep cycle. It will take some time to fix things, particularly the banking sector. We don’t have the money to do what China did, which was to put the money in the banking sector, write off the loans. We cannot afford that right now,” he said.

Banerjee’s take on the India’s economic scenario is this: “Poverty alleviation will suffer if the urban sector fails to create low skill jobs. Rural folks flock to the urban sector to earn their livelihood and they send the money back home. That’s the peak source of transmission of growth from the urban sector to rural sector. Whenever the urban sector slows down, the rural sector feels the impact.”

Banerjee was profusely greeted and praised when he stressed that India needs a better opposition which is the heart of any democracy and the ruling party should embrace it. He said there was no correlation between authoritarianism and economic success.

 JLF this time had a session on ‘Kashmir: Of Barbed Wires and Almond Blossoms’ that explored the paradoxes and polarities that define the region in the context of the human, the personal and the political. It featured poet and academic Asiya Zahoor,  Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Manoj, and Padma Shri Amitabh Mattoo, Professor of Disarmament Studies at JNU and Honorary Professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. They spoke on Kashmir, its past, its troubled present and its uncertain future.

The festival ended with a  debate whether social media has divided society with panelists such as Siddhartha Varadarajan, Rana Ayyub, Faye D Souza and Nilanjana Roy.

US journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was cheered by the audience when he said, “It’s not the social media but PM Modi who has divided the society. If a person is to be identified with his clothes then how is social media playing a divisive role. In fact, we should use this medium to fight those who are trying to divide the society.”

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