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Sampath’s announcement came close on the heels of news reports that three Kannada writers had withdrawn from speaking at the festival this year.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.”