How Vikram Sampath Played Victim to the “Tolerance Mafia” at the BLF This Year

The resignation of Vikram Sampath, the erstwhile director of the Bangalore Literature Festival, resulted in a controversy that has been a concoction of selectively represented facts and twisted tales. Vivek Muthuramalingam
29 December, 2015

On 28 November 2015, Vikram Sampath announced that he had resigned from his post as the director of the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF)—which was to take place on 5 and 6 December. Sampath, who had co-founded the festival in 2012 and had been its public face ever since, stated that he had taken this “painful but necessary” decision because of the “tolerance mafia.” The controversy that generated around the festival soon after this declaration has been a concoction of selectively represented facts and twisted tales. The truth, as it often is in such instances, was lost in translation.

Sampath’s announcement came close on the heels of news reports that three Kannada writers had withdrawn from speaking at the festival this year. These were two young authors—Arif Raja, a poet and Dayanand TK, a writer and activist—along with OL Nagabhushana Swamy, a well-known translator and critic. All three had written to the organisers: Raja and Dayanand in Kannada, and Swamy in English. In their letters, the writers mentioned Why I Won’t Return My Sahitya Akademi Award, Sampath’s column that was published in Mint on 16 October.

In the piece, Sampath had, among other things, suggested that several writers were returning their Sahitya Akademi awards because of a “herd instinct.” According to him, they were “barking up a [sic] wrong tree and insulting a jury of compatriots—writers and scholars—who have selected their work.” Sampath dismissed this outrage as selective and claimed that these writers had, in the past, been “silent when books were banned, authors attacked, and rationalists killed.” He also said that the writers had not taken “actively consistent stands against governments” and had remained silent about “catastrophes” such as the Emergency, the Godhra riots, the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Mumbai blasts. Sampath neglected to mention that many writers were returning their awards to the Akademi to protest its silence on both, the murder of MM Kalburgi—a rationalist and Sahitya Akademi award recipient—and the intimidation of writers. Some were also doing so to urge the government to address the growing number of incidents related to intolerance across the country.

In the 210-word note that Raja sent the BLF organisers on 26 November, he countered Sampath’s assertion that writers had been unresponsive to political and social events in the past. Raja cited examples of figures such as Rabindranath Tagore, who renounced his knighthood to protest the Jalianwala Bagh massacre of 1919; Kannada writer and social activist Shivarama Karanth who returned his Padma Shri during the Emergency; and Kannada writer and poet Chandrashekar Patil, who got incarcerated and lost his job at that time (Patil recently returned his Pampa Prashasti—the highest literary honour conferred by the government in Karnataka—to protest Kalburgi’s killing). Raja also stated that it was “unilateral and childish” to disregard these actions as politically motivated. He ended his note by seeking forgiveness for withdrawing because of ideological reasons, and added, “Not returning awards doesn't make one reactionary. Similarly, merely returning awards doesn't make one progressive.”

In his letter, which was about 303 words long, Dayanand said that a festival of letters was an occasion for writers to affirm their literary commitment and unite to espouse the cause of those “hurt by the domination of ruling classes.” Highlighting the problems he had identified with Sampath’s arguments in the Mint article, Dayanand reasoned, “Those who do not understand the inner anxieties of writers cannot understand, or achieve, anything life-affirming through any literature or writing or festival.” He concluded on a warm note, saying, “Let only love remain.”

OL Nagabhushana Swamy began his short 239-word note by apologising for deciding to pull out of BLF. He said, “I feel reluctant to be a part of a festival organised by those who are not willing even to pause and examine the anguish of the writers who have returned their awards.” Swamy also highlighted his concern that Kannada and Kannada writers had not been treated well at the festival in the past. He signed off by acknowledging that he could have voiced his grievances at the festival but did not wish to do so because “we are living in a situation where there is supposed to be freedom of expression and no sensitive understanding of what is being said.”

Through these letters, the writers expressed their solidarity with those Sampath had denigrated for returning their awards. They did not suggest that he should step down, resign, or make an attempt to placate them. They said nothing about the festival except that they would prefer to stay away from it. Yet, Sampath promptly responded with his resignation and an 838-word statement that was reproduced in full by several publications. He said that he had taken this step in the interest of the BLF, “which is now being linked to my personal views and targeted.” Through his statement, and in subsequent interviews, Sampath alleged that the withdrawing writers were being intolerant of his right to hold a view. He claimed that the writers were attacking him for his resistance to the “Award Wapsi campaign,” his contrarian stance on Tipu Sultan, and a petition that he had signed with 45 others “on the need for recognising multiple view points and narratives in Indian historiography.” With a hint of self-sacrifice, Sampath told the media that he hoped his resignation would make the writers more comfortable in participating in the festival. The narrative was compelling, and the predicament of an organiser being forced out of his own festival because of the “intolerant” gatekeepers of tolerance, enticing.

Contrary to Sampath’s claims, the three writers made no mention of his stance on Tipu Sultan, much less voice any disagreement with it. The petition Sampath claimed he was being attacked for, and which he said was drafted as a response to the Tipu Sultan controversy in Karnataka, made no mention of the historical figure. It did, however, refute two previous petitions by well-known scholars and artists who had publicly urged the government to address the growing incidents of intolerance in the country. The petition that Sampath had signed referred to this group as a “New School, which may be called ‘Leftist’ for want of a better term” and berated it for becoming “synonymous with a number of abusive and unscholarly practices.” Of the three writers, Dayanand was the only one to mention this petition in his letter, noting, “The festival organiser has identified himself with anti-democratic forces by endorsing a petition issued by right-wing minds that condemned distinguished historians in the country.”

In an interview that he gave to The Hindu soon after his resignation, Sampath asserted that he had been coerced into taking the decision. “There was a campaign by a section of writers and media houses, calling up authors from across the country asking them how they could support a ‘tainted festival,’” Sampath said, before continuing, “If such bullying and ganging up is not called coercion or intolerance, what is?” He reiterated this stance during a panel discussion on television. BLF invitees, Sampath alleged, had been warned over the phone that it was unsafe for them to visit the city, and were told their participation in the festival might cause communal riots.

Interestingly, the span of time between the first two letters and Sampath’s resignation—during which, he seemed to suggest, the matter had escalated to this extent—was not even 48 hours. At the time of his resignation, only two others had withdrawn from the festival: the Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and the Malayalam novelist Sarah Joseph (one of the early writers to return her Sahitya Akademi award). Others, such as writers Javed Akhtar, and Rakshanda Jalil, dropped out after Sampath announced his decision to resign. No individual or organisation publicly demanded Sampath’s resignation, criticised his views in the media, or called for a boycott of the festival. Sampath himself offered no information on the unidentified “section of writers and media houses” he claimed to have been intimidated by.

Sampath’s profile as a festival director and his proximity to the English-language media undoubtedly helped him garner high-decibel support. Several well-known personalities from the city and elsewhere jumped in to criticise the withdrawing writers, and label them intolerant, after his resignation. The Bangalore-based film personality and media advisor to the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prakash Belawadi, wrote a vitriolic piece in the Bangalore Mirror, branding writers such as Dayanand, Swamy and Raja, “brutal, barbaric and censorious.” Status messages on social media, hashtags such as #IStandWithBLF, and headlines on news channels mirrored Belawadi’s view of Sampath as the unsuspecting prey of an attack.

Historian Ramachandra Guha threw in his support for the BLF as well. He said, “I can understand not accepting an invitation in the first place. But to agree to speak and then pull out because one does not agree with the views of one of the organisers is to close off debate altogether.” This sentiment, echoed by others, implied that any debate on the issue outside the BLF was neither legitimate nor plausible. The ongoing discourse on intolerance was thus deftly turned on its head, and the public space for it was reduced to a two-day event at a plush hotel. The conversation was limited to defending Sampath’s right to express his views, even though that right was never under attack.

A dearth of bilingual journalists in English newsrooms meant that very few correspondents were familiar with the profile or the work of the writers who had unwittingly triggered the controversy with their letters. The English media’s coverage of this incident was largely restricted to highlighting Sampath’s resignation. The writers’ perspective, when it was presented, was drowned out by the inordinate amount of space and credence given to Sampath.

During their interaction with the media, Dayanand and Swamy expressed surprise at how their letters had been received. In an interview that was published in The Hindu, Dayanand said, “Never did we say we will come only if Vikram Sampath quits. We have no idea who did. It is up to Mr. Sampath to tell why he decided to quit the post.” In the Kannada daily, Prajavani, Swamy called Sampath’s claims “narcissistic.” Explaining the flawed manner in which the argument regarding freedom of expression had been operating in this context, he said, “It troubles me that they [those criticising the writers] won't even hear out someone's ideas. The root of intolerance lies in the absence of this sensibility.”

On 3 December, Dayanand and Raja sent out a three-page media release in response to Sampath’s “lies.” They said, “We have never used the word ‘boycott’ anywhere in our letters. However, Vikram Sampath and the literary festival’s organisers have twisted our decision to stay away, and have called it a ‘boycott’ to suit their purpose.” They went on to note that Sampath had “coolly appropriated martyrdom” by referring to their stance as a “boycott.” While Sampath frequently invoked the idea of freedom of expression to justify his views, they said, “He resorts to disdain when we exercise our freedom to stand in solidarity with the freedom of expression of the writers who returned their awards.”

Swamy’s observation on the status of Kannada writers in the BLF was not an isolated one. Litterateurs in Karnataka have remarked on the differential treatment meted out to the language at the festival as well. In a blog post published by the Kannada magazine Avadhi on 2 December, the well-known translator CN Ramachandran described his experience at the BLF two years ago. He called the festival a “glamorous event” and highlighted the casual attitude with which the session he had been invited to was treated. Ramachandran quoted the moderator of his session as having been instructed to “keep it chatty and keep it short.”

Language is not the only contentious aspect of the festival. The organisers’ method for bringing about a multiplicity of views through spokespeople from political parties, though outside the scope of a literary gathering, has not been representative either. In her column for the Bangalore Mirror, Gauri Lankesh, the journalist and activist, noted, “Even a cursory glance at the list of participants [this year] shows that only people from the BJP and the Congress—and a lone member from AAP—have been invited.” Parties such as the Janata Dal (Secular) and those from the Left, Lankesh pointed out, had no presence despite their active role in the state.

In his resignation note, Sampath had proclaimed that through its model of “community funding,” the BLF “has strived hard to maintain an independence and neutrality that is so hard to achieve in today’s market driven ecosystem.” This is not entirely true. Lankesh pointed out that a substantial amount of the funds for the festival comes from the Department of Tourism and Department of Kannada and Culture, Government of Karnataka. The latter alone, according to her, gave the BLF Rs 15 lakh this year. Last year, the literary festival, which is pitched as “soft infrastructure” for Bangalore by its organisers, had raised close to Rs 45 lakh from “Friends of BLF”—a group that comprised 53 donor individuals from the corporate sector. It included Mohandas Pai, the chairman of Manipal Global Education; Kris Gopalakrishnan, the executive vice chairperson of Infosys; SD Shibulal, the former chief executive officer and managing director of Infosys; Subroto Bagchi, the co-founder of MindTree; Sangita Jindal, the chairperson of the JSW Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of the JSW group of companies; and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the chairman and managing director of Biocon Limited.

The BLF was declared an asset for Bangalore’s “soft power of culture” in the list of recommendations given to the government of Karnataka in January 2014 by the Karnataka Tourism Policy Vision Group, a task force set up to offer suggestions for a new tourism policy for the state. Mohandas Pai chaired this group, and its co-chair was V Ravichandar—a consultant for public corporate initiatives in Bengaluru, who is a co-founder of the BLF and a member of its organising committee.

The organising committee’s stance on Sampath’s resignation is unclear. There was no official statement issued by the BLF after Sampath resigned. If the committee did not disagree with Sampath’s views and if it did believe in his right to hold those views, why would the question of resignation arise? The resignation appears to have been a token gesture for drawing in sympathy for the festival and its director without having to officially clarify the BLF’s position on either the writers’ views or Sampath’s.

This controversy ensured that “intolerance” became the central theme of the BLF this year. However, the invitations to functionaries from political parties—some of whom had no connection to the literary world—and the limited scope of the debate that centered around the BJP’s and Congress’ agendas, expectedly resulted in a blame game far removed from a literary or philosophical discussion.

In the run-up to the festival, the organisers sent an email announcing that they had named the two stages at the festival “Left Wing” and “Right Wing.” As “Left” and “Right” became fixed positions at BLF, the engineer turned archivist–historian Sampath began describing himself as a “Liberal Centrist.” The newfound ideology may not be familiar to many, but by parading this supposedly non-partisan position as superior, Sampath seems to have succeeded in invalidating the intellectual cosmology of the writers who withdrew from the Bangalore Literature Festival.


A previous version of this article erroneously noted that Vikram Sampath had said that he "distrusts communists, dislikes the Congress and detests the BJP." Ramchandra Guha had made this statement. The Caravan regrets the error.