JLF 2017: Saeed Naqvi talks of being Muslim, audience boos & Gulzar walks out
"Ninety percent Muslims are backward both in India and Pakistan. And they will remain backward because they want to remain backward," said an elderly man wearing a badly-fitted steel grey suit when the house was opened for questions at one of the sessions at the Jaipur Literary Festival.
Pragya Tiwari had just hosted Dattareya Hosabale and Manmohan Vaidya of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in one of the most controversial sessions of the festival - "Of Saffron and the Sangh".
Just a few sessions earlier, the same man in the grey suit had shot to his feet and yelled: "This is a cultural session, not a political session." The session in question was "Across the Rivers: Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb", which featured author-journalist Saeed Naqvi in conversation with columnist Pavan K Varma.
Varma was trying his best to corner Naqvi over his book Being the Other: The Muslim in India. The debate was heating up, but Naqvi with his flair for words would lighten up the mood every now and then - "I think you read the wrong book, Varma sahab" - following it up with a beautiful sher or two.
Varma was trying hard to match Naqvi's wit. A round had just been won by Naqvi. Just then the grey suit decided to turn the spotlight on himself and told Naqvi to focus on culture and not politics. Varma did not intervene.
Soon after, writer-poet-lyricist Gulzar walked out of the session. Naqvi's gesture from the stage, asking him to stay back did not help.
Being the 'Other' at JLF
Saeed Naqvi has been experiencing the pangs of being 'the Other' for more than six decades. He decided to document the many acts of betrayal inflicted by people, the government and also by his 'Own'. Betrayal by bosom friends who, much like the rest of the world, have ended up seeing him as the 'Other'.
Varma was seeing Naqvi as the 'Other' at the session, although both have been friends for decades.
Naqvi's story could be any thinking Muslim's story, who is bending over backwards to be accepted in the mainstream, but the acceptance is usually never complete. It comes with caveats. Or with unnecessary frills.
Naqvi's pain was acute because he grew up in Awadh - where a line between Hindus and Muslims was seldom drawn, and where syncretism - the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb - was a way of life.
Naqvi was nostalgic. Of the world that he had lost and the world he was trying to reclaim - for himself, and for the Other(s). The 'Other(s)' in the audience loved him for that. But not those who loved to 'Other'.
The Colour of Saffron
Dattatreya Hosabale, the joint general secretary of RSS, and Manmohan Vaidya, in charge for media relations of RSS, were invited to the 10th edition of the JLF even though they do not belong to the world of books. Not as writers, anyway.
The moderator Pragya Tiwari did her best to corner the two.
Tiwari: Your definition of Hindu Rashtra sounds like all citizens, no matter what religion they subscribe to, are equal in the Hindu Rashtra, that there are no second class citizens. Even so, there seems
to be, to my mind, a certain skepticism, about the idea of secularism, about the idea of minority rights...
Roughly translated from Hindi, Vaidya said living in peace and harmony was a "Bharatiya parampara," the great Indian tradition.
Tiwari: I would like to ask you that the Sachar Committee report came out a couple of years ago, if this minority doesn't exist, why is the state of the socio-economic state of Muslims in this country still so bad.
Vaidya: "We should study this...."
The audience cheered for Hosabale and Vaidya. Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje was attending this session.
Each time the audience cheered for Varma or for Hosabale and Vaidya, there were many amongst the audience who cringed. This number may just decrease as JLF gets on in years.
There is another unnecessary session coming up: "Akbar: Kitna Itihas, Kitna Upanyas". Not sure how it will unfold, but did the organisers have to mess up this great literary event with saffron overtones?