Home » Life & Society » Authors refuse to tolerate lit fest organiser's opinion. He quits

Authors refuse to tolerate lit fest organiser's opinion. He quits

Ramakrishna Upadhya | Updated on: 2 December 2015, 12:20 IST

The festival

  • Bengaluru literary festival, or #blrlitfest, has become a writers\' favourite in its three years of existence
  • This time, the organisers wanted to have a lively debate on the issue of intolerance

The resignation

  • Founder-author Vikram Sampath quit his post after some invitees cancelled on the fest
  • Sampath, a Sahitya Akademi Yuva awardee, had expressed his differences with the Award Wapsi campaign
  • Among the ones who cancelled were three Kannada authors and Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi

More in the story

  • Sampath\'s comments on Tipu Sultan that may also have had an impact
  • Why some authors found Sampath\'s stance unpalatable
  • The impact on the festival - who\'s still coming?

Won't intolerance over intolerance lead to more intolerance and eliminate the scope for a tolerant and rational debate?

That's the question foremost in the minds of those watching the intolerance debate in the country from the periphery.

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The Bengaluru Literary Festival, also known as #blrlitfest - the first major festival of writers and artistes after the Kalburgi and Dadri killings - appears to have become a victim of a sharp divide among intellectuals in the country.

Or, conceivably, the fest, in its fourth year, could turn out to be a platform for letting out steam from either side. This could then lead to the beginning of the process of a dialogue, if not finding an equilibrium to respect different points of view.

But, whatever the outcome, the organisers of the festival, being held at an upmarket hotel in Bengaluru on December 6-7, suffered a major jolt on 28 November when writer Vikram Sampath, the founder-organiser of the festival, stepped down from the organising committee.

Disdain towards Award Wapsi

Sampath, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning author, resigned from his post after three Kannada writers, TK Dayanand, Arif Raza and OL Nagabhushana Swamy, withdrew from the festival, citing Sampath's 'disdain' towards those who had returned their awards.

In a recent newspaper article, Sampath had written that he did not support the actions of writers returning the awards, as "the awards are given by the Akademis, which are autonomous and had nothing to do with the government, against whom they are protesting." He had said he would not be returning his award.

Nagabhushana Swamy, a Kannada literary critic, was one of the first to withdraw from the festival, saying: "I'm reluctant to participate in an event organised by those who are not willing to even pause and examine the anguish of writers who have decided to return the awards." He also cited 'low priority' given to Kannada writers in the festival as another reason.

Later, Hindi Poet Ashok Vajpeyi and Malayalam writers K Satchitanandan and Sara Joseph, who had confirmed their participation, also withdrew for similar reasons.

The organisers say poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar, who was to attend the fest, had also hinted at his withdrawal.

Vikram Sampath is a Sahitya Akademi Yuva award winner, who founded the #blrlitfest four years ago

To save the festival from further embarrassment and a depleted line-up of speakers, Sampath decided to quit.

In his resignation letter, Sampath said he had become a target of a 'personalised campaign' for two reasons. One, that he did not subscribe to the 'Award Wapsi' campaign, and secondly, "my stance on the recent Tipu controversy and a subsequent petition signed by me along with a group of historians, archaeologists, epigraphists and artistes on the need to recognise multiple viewpoints and narratives in Indian historiography."

'Want to have a debate without prejudices'

In the three years of its existence, 'blrlitfest' had become increasingly popular with writers and artistes of the calibre of Gulzar, Girish Karnad, Shobhaa De, William Dalrymple, Ian Jack, Wendell Rodrigues, MM Kalburgi, Asma Jahangir, Arun Shourie, Chetan Bhagat, K Satchidanandan and Anita Nair, among others.

This year, in keeping with the 'general mood of the nation', the organisers wanted the discussions to revolve around the freedom of speech and expression, the debate over tolerance and intolerance, the historical importance of Tipu Sultan and a tribute to MS Subbulakshmi.

Among those who had confirmed their participation were Ramachandra Guha, Javed Akhtar, Nandan Nilekani, MJ Akbar, Shashi Deshpande, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Chandrasekhar Kambar, Ashutosh and Barkha Dutt.

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Speaking to Catch, Sampath said: "The idea is to have an eclectic and free debate without any prejudices. Our platform is open to people of different ideologies and diverse view points...We want healthy discussions."

Sampath, a bright, young writer, has so far published two books: "Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars" on the erstwhile royal family of Mysore; and "My Name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician," the biography of the first Indian classical musician to produce a gramophone record.

In 2011, Sampath won Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar award for 'Gauhar Jaan'.

[subheadingWeighing in on the Tipu controversy]

As the debate over Award Wapsi has raged, some of the left-leaning writers appear to have found Sampath's liberal views somewhat disconcerting.

While researching about the rulers of Mysore, Sampath had come across a lot of material on Tipu Sultan, who is both worshipped and reviled as a historical figure.

In a recent article in The Mint, Sampath had tried to put Tipu's rule in perspective, as a great warrior who valiantly fought the British, but also earned the wrath of the local people by allegedly killing and converting hundreds of Hindus and Christians.

On the Tipu controversy, Sampath wrote: "Judging historical figures by modern standards is unfair"

He quoted from one of Tipu's letters written on 19 January 1790 to one Burduz Zamaun Khan, saying: "Don't you know I have achieved a great victory recently in the Malabar and over four lakh Hindus have converted to Islam?"

Sampath firmly concluded that Tipu should not be judged by today's standards. "Judging characters of the past by the yardsticks and definitions of today is being grossly unfair on them because the facts don't fit our straitjacket," he wrote.

In the light of the recent controversy over the celebration of Tipu's 265th birth anniversary in Karnataka, which turned violent, writers like Sampath were riled for "demonising" and making "polarising" remarks on an Indian hero.

Sampath, however, counters such arguments saying: "As someone who has researched the history of Mysore for over 15 years, I believe I'm entitled to have an intellectual standpoint on a matter of historical debate and also freedom of expression."

The defence and the future

Writers Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathy and filmmaker Girish Kasarvalli are among those who have sprung to Sampath's defence. Kasarvalli said: "In a democratic set up, there will be differences of opinion and we should debate it. One shouldn't blindly oppose without attempting a discussion."

Hopefully, blrlitfest, will do exactly that. Historian Ramachandra Guha, who has been highly critical of the 'atmosphere of intolerance' after the BJP came to power at the Centre, has confirmed that he will participate in the conference. So has Shashi Deshpande, one of those who had returned her literary award. And so has eminent journalist and BJP spokesperson MJ Akbar. Let the fireworks begin!

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First published: 2 December 2015, 12:20 IST
Ramakrishna Upadhya @rkupadhya9

Ramkrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, currently working with TV9. Earlier, he was with Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and The Indian Express.