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Literary Festivals and Untouchability: What Is It To Be Banned From One’s Own Life?


Indian campuses took a major leap in political churning after the ‘suicide” of Rohit Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar from University of Hyderabad. Rohit was an active member of Ambedkar Students Association, which was founded in 1993 and which is an active and assertive voice in UoH The plot behind Rohit’s casteist institutional murder left far reaching result in campus politics and Indian political movements for self recognition. The murder of Rohit Vemula could only ignite people who have faith in other human beings, who seek justice, who struggle with their utmost ability to survive. A thousand narratives of discrimination surfaced after his suicide. And also, Rohit triggered a movement of assertion, of dissent and of rejecting victimhood. Since a year, the changes are very visible and viable for a new social structure.  On the context of the killer VC Apparao Podile winning PM’s Millenium Plaque of Honour, Feminist V Geetha writes in her article named ‘Towards a Pedagogy and Culture of Social Respect’:

“Meanwhile, nine students from Bahujan, Adivasi and Dalit backgrounds studying in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been suspended for raising questions about protocols and rules relating to the admission to M.Phil and PhD courses, on the ground that they disrupted an academic council meeting. We could not have asked for a more perfect picture of our undemocratic and dishonest public and intellectual life, such as it is.”

On Rohith Vemula Shahadat Din, Rahul Sonpimple, one of the suspended students from JNU calls JNU the ‘republic of Gandhi’, pointing out the division of labour on the basis of caste inside the campus, he breaks the idol of JNU ‘the womb of revolution’ and calls it ‘Janeu’. It’s the same campus that raised up Kanhaiah Kumar into a ‘revolutionary promise’ for the mainstream Indian left just after his arrest on sedition charge.

Are they Really Revolting?!

 Kerala Literature Festival and Certain Questions 

Kerala literature festival is an annual literary festival held in Kerala, at Kozhikode beach, organized by the Department of Culture, mainstream publishing house DC Kizhakkemuri Foundation with the support of many other organizations. World known poet K Satchidanandan is the festival director.

Kanhaiya Kumar from JNU, who got arrested for sedition charge and Arundhathi B from University of Hyderabad, who edited a book on Rohit Vemula movement are the two students leaders representing its session ‘Revolting Indian Campuses’.  Kanhaiya’s book ‘Bihar to Tihar’ has been  published recently. It didn’t evoke much discussion. Kanhaiya, after his theatrical release from jail, after days of detention delivered a fiery speech that gave the nation goose bumps. The mainstream left had used him as a tool for election propaganda as well. This revolting young man has attended Calcutta Literary Meet conducted by TATA. A group of students, affiliated to the Bastar Solidarity Group sought to disrupt the event. They disrupted discussion on his book Bihar to Tihar: My Political Journey and they shouted ‘Kashmir maange aazadi”. Kanhaiah who had always repeated Marx Lenin Bhagath Singh, Lale Lal Lal Salam slogans, after his release from jail, interestingly changed over to Lal Salam Neel Salam slogans. He also cleared his position on the issue of self determination of Kashmir that he is looking for ‘freedom within the country’, not ‘from the country’ emphasizing that he is a patriotic and law abiding citizen which proved that he is not Indian Che Guvera(as he was called during that time) but ‘Indianized Che Guvera’.16395705_1285766944840795_178817932_n (1)

Rahul Sonpimple, on Kanhaiya presenting himself as a radical on spaces like these says: “there is an emergence of upper castes appearing spaces like these- spaces controlled by upper caste liberals, they just want to project themselves. The hegemony which they had been following for a long time-like Ravish Kumar in NDTV. He talks about caste when there is a pressure on them to talk and appropriate. But if you ask him, how many SC/ST anchors or professionals are there in his media house he does not have an answer for it. It is about how they present themselves as liberals. But their slogan is for Akhanda Bharat. But about Kashmir, Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu questions, they didn’t utter a word. On Feb 9 case they said that Kashmiri students who came from outside raised the slogans.

When an elite section of the society is targeted, the state just warns them, and the entire society will fight for them. Nobody even cares about the students from states like Jharkhand. These people are the new radicals. Another February 9 is coming. Will they shout the same slogans about Afzal Guru? State knows very well how to control them and they are safe in state’s hands.

They want to survive separately. We do not trust these people. Umar wrote an open letter to me, but not to Kanhaiah. They are united on their caste. This nexus of the upper castes can be seen in literary and academic worlds. They will anywhere create spaces for themselves. They want this binary to be kept. It is like Gandhi talking on anti-untouchability and negating Ambedkar. History repeats like this.”

The current Indian literature contains a wide variety of other voices, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Transgender people etc. counter writes the mainstream literature through their narratives and articles and these all are rising with a vibrant political energy. These open up space for new political interventions which contain different world views, dreams and daring declarations.  It’s a sheer lack of choice for the left to conduct such a festival itself.  These days there is a resurgence of literature in online social networking spaces. I doubt whether these organizers of the literature festival really read them.
The selection of Arundhathi and Kanhaiya itself is a slap stik comedy. What kind of political discussions have Kanhaiya and Arundhati started off in Indian political context? They are just remains from the 80s. For me, this literature festival is farce. The current Indian literary space is savarna and also leftist. Left in itself is a farce.” Writes director and novelist Rupesh Kumar (His novel Cinemascope is going to get published soon)

The proposed participation of Arundhathi B in the literature festival session named ‘Revolting Campuses’ also is problematic. Arundhathi B had edited an anthology of articles on Justice for Rohit Vemula movement, in which Kanhaiya also wrote a piece. Arundhati was not seen in the forefront of the movement since she gave bytes to TV channels cutting the voice of Dalit students in UoH, who got beaten up and arrested during the movement and were in the forefront of the movement all along. None of those student leaders of ASA are invited for this particular session, while Arundhathi, with just one book and celebrity aura around her, could sneak in easily. That’s how caste shows its color. Arundhati has been criticized for her political interventions in campus that took over the agency of other students from the marginalized communities.

Thahir Jamal KM, a student leader from ASA, University of Hyderabad writes in his article ‘Savanna Bodies and Subaltern Engagements –What the new Youth Talks off”countering Arundhati’s revolutionary forthcomings during Kiss of Love protests in Campus. “To hurt the power in campuses is the only means to make campuses wide and democratic. The physical presence of a Dalit-Muslim student itself is a strong reaction to the normative savarna upper handedness. This otherness shatters all savarna normativities, that is the reason what scared the body of Kashmiri student Mudassir Kamran who got killed under police power in EFLU. Body is not mere physical. It performs cultural values. Body performs power in different levels.” Thahir writes how dangerous it is not to admit one’s being savarna, especially in contemporary campuses, when these presences are seen suspiciously, when any of these students from Dalit, Muslim, Tribal communities can be harmed and killed by the state. Projecting students like Arundhati in a space like literary festival is utterly regressive.

Almost all literary festivals are held in metropolis, luxurious avenues for fiery literary discussions and these discussions contain just two people who talk over the suggested topics. The audience rarely gets a space to raise their opinions and create a space for dialogue. The ‘idea of stage’ can be found very uncomfortable about these literature festivals. Literature is not a corporate business that should be confined to dialogue between writers and intellectuals on stage, with given less space for the audience.

Nikhil Cariappa, another student from University of Hyderabad writes: “I was watching JLF 2017 on FB Live. Panel had Ashwin Sanghi, Hindol Sengupta, Suhel Seth and a couple of others I didn’t recognize. They were discussing corporate social responsibility.

Hindol Sengupta was talking about Tata and Swami Vivekananda and shuts down an audience member for asking a question about Dalit entrepreneurs. Asked him to read his book because it has some statistics from Dalit economists it seems.

Ashwin Sanghi said that you need both Laxmi and Saraswati in your life. The only thing that keeps them together is Ganesh it seems. Then he moved on to quote Chanakya, Arthashastra, and finally reflects on an American sitcom called ‘Silicon Valley’. Suhel Seth quoting Manu Smriti and the question from the crowd is about Saraswati putra and Dharti putra. This literature festival is for upper castes, by upper castes, who have little to no knowledge about any literature it seems but for Brahmanical, authoress mythology. Next week is Hyderabad Literary Festival.”

Whose Fascism?

There are people who call Rohit Vemula a ‘victim of fascism’ without addressing the ‘thing around his neck’ that segregated him from the rest of the world– caste. Without addressing caste, applying his plight on the word ‘fascism’ which is popularly used, most of the mainstream Indian left organizations distanced his suicide from the question of caste. Rohit Vemula is not the victim of fascism, he committed suicide since he and his colleagues of Ambedkar Students Association were tortured by the Brahminical institution for being Dalit. Caste is not a bedtime tale told to children which will make them sleep happy.

Indian Brahminical fascism’s base is this thing called ‘caste’. It was in December 2015 Kerala witnessed a drastic intellectual drift. While the leftist organizations conducted ‘Manushya Samgamam’ (Human Meet), to confront this very vague idea of fascism. And the organizers made it very clear that only ‘human beings’ can participate, religious practitioners can’t be part of the meet against fascism. Thus, those who felt less human, half -human and one percent human, including Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, Transgenders, and Women who felt less human gathered in the name ‘Amanava Samgamam’– Ahuman Meet. While Manushya Samgamam celebrated the gathering by dancing and singing songs, Amanava Samgamam gathered commemorating victims of secularist, Brahminic, and nationalistic conscience, like Yakub Memon, Abdul Nazar Maadani, Sirajunnisa, Ishrat Jahan etc. and many fictional characters who were portrayed ‘less human.’ When Manushya Samgamam asked people to join devoid of caste and religion, Amanava Samgamam was a gathering in the name of caste and religion. The idea of secularism put forward by Manushya Samgamam organizers was directly Islamophobic and was nullifying all the religious undercurrents.

“As the homogeneous liberal human identity gets reconstituted over cultural interactions here are those who get silenced. They are those who cannot shed their identity as they encounter places of people’s convergence over Language, Art and Tastes. Those who stain or cannot get enlightened even while being bogged down by the weight of ‘Human’ Values. Those who cannot forget their oppression for the benefit of the anxieties of a larger crowd. Those who are turned Incomplete and Metamorphosed into Quarter, Half and Three Fourth Beings, Who Are Yet To Be Human as they are weighted down by Hegemonic Construction of Knowledge, Power And Body.”- thus reads the prologue to Amanava samgamam.amnva

This time too, a similar division is made in Kerala Literary Festival.

Activist Sudeep writes, “there is a session named Islam and Islamic State. Hameed Chendamangaloor, NP Chekkutti, Ashraf Kadakkal, MR Kinaloor etc are in the panel. There is no panel on Hindutva and Hindu state.”

It is very interesting to note that, while the Dalits, Muslim, Adivasis and all other people from oppressed communities and nationalities are under threat of this existing Brahmanical state, in the disguised name of nation, nationalism and patriotism, the organizers of KLF are more concerned about Islamic state! It can be assumed that they have fallen for media propaganda’s on Islam and Muslims while they are seeing how harsh it is to live in this Brahmanic nation. Will they dare to organize a session to question Hinduism as such as Ambedkar did through  ‘Annihiliation of Caste’ and ‘Riddles in Hinduism?’ While Muslim students all over the country are in protest over hundred days, raising the question #WhereisNajeeb, do they dare to discuss  the issue of “Muslim others” in this country while they could accept Taslima Nasreen as a prey of  “Muslim fundamentalism”? Are they ready to call Najeeb’s mother Fathima Nafeesa to this literary festival? Rather than delving in mere fantasies, I think these savarna festivals can’t contain much of realities.

Last year also the Kerala literature festival had such a panel named ‘Religion, Spirituality and Philosophy’. The speakers were those who opposed religion and religious practitioners were absent on the panel. On this, Muslim organizations came forward asking the state government to withdraw its support to the festival. Similar session is scheduled for the upcoming literature festival too. Enough is enough, but showcasing the cultural diversity, there is another session named ‘Gotrakalolsavam’/ tribal art fest.

Let there be discussions on human rights in literature and on free speech.

Let them talk about poetry and short stories.  Let those editors, who dumped thousands of women’s writings speak about female presence in these periodicals.

Let readers and writers take selfies in front of that graffiti where ‘Laal Salam’ swallows ‘Neel Salam’. About the future of democracy, Again and again about freedom of expression, About graphic narratives that are made out of pain,

About sexual morality, About ‘religious fundamentalism’, About ‘revolting campuses’, Let your discussions shine like soap bubbles. You will be limited in numbers when you realize your politics is that of Savarna untouchability, that of sheer segregation.

What is it to be banned from one’s own life?

When life for someone is writing? When life for someone is speaking out their mind? When life for someone is raising voice for one’s own survival?

Lynching, suicide, institutional murders, caste rapes, forced missing/ disappearances.  Like, for a woman, not getting chance to get out of the claustrophobic rooms and kitchen space, like being abducted or getting killed for bearing a Muslim name, like getting arrested or getting gun shots for believing in a particular ideology? What is it to be banned from expressing oneself? That is the point where a person who ‘teaches life’ to the rest of the world have least choice between life and death.  The dissenting human being is the most dangerous for the nation.

The other’s voice annihilating their faith in whichever they believe scares them the most. They are scared of different stories being told. They are scared of different canons getting created. Them being scared of these Dalit, Muslim, Female, Adivasi, Transgender others. Them being scared of a more humane, pro-life sentimental politics.  The question of privilege carries a flowery carpet within but it is just flowery since it is not accessible for all!