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Sampath’s announcement came close on the heels of news reports that three Kannada writers had withdrawn from speaking at the festival this year.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