Mihir S Sharma: The culture wars, continued

The culture wars have not ended with the Bihar elections, as some cynics thought they might. The movement that began with the return of some Sahitya Akademi awards by authors distressed that the Akademi had not honoured the life of Kannada writer M M Kalburgi, who was shot on August 31, has not petered out. To an extent, it bears the responsibility for dragging the overused word "intolerance" into public discussion; but it began as a more specific protest, upset that Indian state institutions were apparently overlooking the contributions of those with a more rational and liberal point of view.

Neither side has conceded an inch in that battle, whatever the results of the more political and less interesting battle over "tolerance" being waged by competing street protests and in Parliament. The government has continued to shrink the space available to intellectuals it does not directly control - most recently, according to a report in The Indian Express, by using the Indian Council of Historical Research, staffed by right-wing time-servers, to cut off funding to the Indian History Congress, which is a more independent body.

Meanwhile, writers continue their own battles. One recent skirmish dealt with the Bengaluru Literature Festival; three writers said they wouldn't turn up at the festival, because one of the festival organisers - Vikram Sampath - had been unsympathetic to those returning their Sahitya Akademi awards, and because of his stance on the recent controversy in Karnataka on how and whether to commemorate the life of Tipu Sultan. Mr Sampath, in an ill-advised tweet (as if there is any other kind), said the decision was because of the "tolerance mafia" - an odd description for three local language writers who said they were pained at Mr Sampath's calling the return of awards "neither intellectual nor academic in spirit."

There is no clear black and white here. The writers are within their rights to not go to a festival, and to explain their reasons; Mr Sampath is within his rights to make an issue of it. Perhaps both have over-reacted. The writers - Arif Raza, T K Dayanand and O L Nagabhushana Swamy - could easily have turned up at Mr Sampath's festival and criticised his various positions. And Mr Sampath could easily have stayed on, or left quietly without blaming an imaginary "tolerance mafia". (What would a "tolerance mafia" look like, I wonder? Would they make you an offer you could certainly refuse if you chose?)

This feeds into a larger question of how and when authors should use the platforms available to them to express their opinions. I've always assumed that it is close to self-evident that, if you can say what you like, you shouldn't be too fussed about who's providing you with the platform. Contributing to my enjoyment of successive iterations of the Jaipur Literature Festival, for example, have been sights like Binayak Sen holding forth about exploitative corporate practices from a stage paid for by Rio Tinto. This is something that should worry Rio Tinto, not Mr Sen - "no-platforming", the denial of space you control to views you consider reprehensible, is an issue for those who have platforms, not for those who seek to use them. Several people - including Manu Pillai, writing in The Hindu - have pointed out that the Bengaluru Literature Festival crowd-sources its funding, and so is not closely associated with any particular viewpoint.

The point remains: The idea behind the "award-wapsi" movement was to demonstrate solidarity with rationalists and progressives. This means, essentially, expressing solidarity with the idea of reasoned debate. From that point of view, both Mr Sampath - in caricaturing the views of his opponents - and the authors who refused to come to Mr Sampath's festival - in not choosing to take the opportunity to engage in debate on his views - have failed.

If you, in contrast to these approaches, want to understand the kind of views that the "award-wapsi" movement wished to see pushed further into the public domain, there is a simple way to do so. Go and buy The Republic of Reason, recently published by Sahmat, which collects some of the essays written by the murdered rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi. Each of the three sections is illuminating. Kalburgi's concern for folk traditions, for example, and their differences with formal tradition is - perhaps unwittingly? - reflected by Mr Swamy when he criticised what he saw as the elite orientation of the Bengaluru festival.

Pansare's essay on tackling belief head-on while simultaneously enrolling believers is almost revelatory at a moment when India's progressives are holding their heads in their hands, wondering how to deal with a country in love with its own religiosity. But some of the most inspirational writing is from Dabholkar, who writes about the characteristics of faith, and of scientific reason, with a clarity and rootedness that many best-selling atheist writers would envy.

Whether or not one agrees with Dabholkar, Mr Swamy, Mr Sampath, or anyone else, there is a minimum that everyone must aspire to: Not caricaturing your opponents' ideas, but instead attempting reasoned debate with them. So, whether or not you agree, go out and buy The Republic of Reason. And then ask yourself if such views should indeed be shut out by an Indian state nominally committed to instilling a "scientific temper" amongst its people.

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