As Dalrymple changes his mind on Rajiv Malhotra, JLF attendees must take on Dinanath Batra and the threat to books in India
22 January, 2015

The Jaipur Literature Festival, or to give it its rightful name this year, the ZEE-Jaipur Literature Festival, has, like every other year, attracted a number of well-known authors. But this year in India is not like any other year. We have a new government in place, and the change from one dispensation to another is reflected in the festival as Tarun Tejpal gives way to Tarun Vijay.

Of course it is not incumbent upon the festival to reflect on this change; politics need not be the stuff of literature. But over the past year, a man named Dinanath Batra—who has the full endorsement of the current dispensation—has had considerable success in ensuring that publishers think more than twice about publishing anything that may annoy the Sangh Parivar, which is but a name for the vast amorphous machinery of Hindutva ideologues that drives the BJP. So even if politics does not concern the festival, its impact on literature should.

The facts about Batra are well known, but still worth repeating. In February 2014, after a four year legal battle, Batra successfully persuaded Penguin to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, and pulp the remaining copies. Soon after, in March, another publisher, Aleph, received a letter from Batra regarding a different book by Doniger, On Hinduism. Amidst proceedings that spread across many months and much confusion, Aleph—a much smaller publisher than Penguin—was able to ensure that the book was not withdrawn.

Others seem to have fallen in line. In May 2014, Megha Kumar, the author of Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, was told by her publisher, Orient Blackswan, that her book had been set aside for “comprehensive reassessment.” 

Looking through the 2015 program schedule for the festival, I cannot find a single session devoted to this predicament. While we all understand that such festivals are largely a jamboree, it still takes gumption of quite another kind to ignore the very real issue of book bans and censorship at what pretends to be India’s most important literary event.

Undoubtedly, many  delegates—several of whom have over the recent past impassionedly expounded on the freedom of expression after the Charlie Hebdo case—will find ways  to raise this issue in their sessions.

Already, on day one of the festival, a session on “Is the commerce of literature today killing good writing?” turned into a discussion on the silencing of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan and the existing threat to the freedom of expression.

Perhaps, they will even go on to ask questions of the representatives of Penguin Random House, a publisher that has and continues to enjoy a special relationship with the festival. If so, there is another set of questions they need to ask of the organisers and of a fellow delegate named Rajiv Malhotra.

According to the festival website, Malhotra is “a Princeton (USA) based researcher on civilisations, cross-cultural encounters and science. He retired from corporate and entrepreneurial careers to pursue philanthropy, research and public service, and established the Infinity Foundation. His three provocative books include Being Different, Breaking India and Indra’s Net. He was the chief protagonist in Invading the Sacred.”

These credentials have not met with everyone’s approval. A set of tweets from last year exchanged between Malhotra and the Jaipur festival organiser and panjandrum William Dalrymple, make for interesting reading today.

Between February and November 2014—and perhaps the fact that the Modi government came to power during this time may just be a coincidence—Dalrymple seems to have changed his mind.

Gone was Malhotra’s passive-aggressive inveigling from his tweets.

His presence should be welcomed. It gives “serious intellectuals” a chance to ask a few questions of Malhotra.

In the course of a recent article on Dinanath Batra and his Sangh-backed organisation, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, I learnt that Batra had been briefed about Doniger’s book and funded to fight the case by Basant Tariyal. Tariyal was, until recently, CEO of the Sangh-backed Ekal Vidyalaya Global and continues to be on the organisation’s board of advisors. He is also closely associated with Rajiv Malhotra. Batra’s colleagues in Delhi told me Tariyal and Malhotra are a part of the same circle and they remain thankful to the group for its support in their battle against the book.

It may well be another coincidence, but the main sponsor of the festival, ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Ltd., is a company founded and run by Subhash Chandra who was a past president of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation.

It is possible that Malhotra does not endorse what Tariyal has done, in which case it would be good to hear him publicly say so at Jaipur. Perhaps “serious intellectuals” would like to ask him about his stance on books whose content he opposes. Does he support banning them? Does he support legal action against books, based on laws that impinge on the freedom of expression and free debate? Does he endorse the kind of objections Batra had to Doniger’s book—including objecting to the naked Gopis shown with Krishna on the cover—even though such depictions have been a staple of Indian art?

The organisers of the festival have in the past failed to stand up to those who did not let Salman Rushdie speak in Jaipur. The Congress government at the time was complicit in that act of censorship. With a new dispensation in place, are organisers going to find new ways of succumbing? Nevertheless, if they won’t speak up, it is up to the delegates at the festival to show that literature is not about silence.