For two years now, the JLF has become a magnet for the political fringe to find a voice. What sort of threat does that represent?
Many of these groups have been 10 or 15-people strong, whereas almost 1,20,000 people have come through the gates of the Diggi Palace. A small percentage of the attendees making a particular statement does not represent a big threat. The issue primarily is how to deal with it and how much space to give it. I think everybody has the right to be able to protest and make their voice heard, but can it be politicised? Can they hold the festival to ransom? That is where we need to draw the line, and we did that. First with the Pakistani authors and then with Jeet Thayil’s reading; we refused to give in. Similarly in Ashisda’s case, as long as we’re able to broaden the scope of the conversation to ensure that it’s kept in perspective, I think people would realise that if they want to bring up an issue, they have to do it in a responsible manner.
Is it possible to engage with those who are pursuing such overt political agendas?
We have to work hard to be inclusive. One of the Muslim groups that arraigned against us came for Jeet Thayil’s session, sat through the poetry and went away as part of the audience. So it’s a process. We are aware that there are many voices in India that do not have the kind of platform that they should, and they look at this as an opportunity for their voice to be heard. If there were enough platforms at the local or state level where their grievances could be heard, would they still need to come and protest here?
Do you think the controversies and threats this time are a fallout of what happened with Rushdie last year?
Last year, I think what happened was that various splinter groups smelt blood. They realised that this is a platform that attracts the best press and therefore it was open season for these people to use that to their advantage.
The role of the media has been under the scanner, particularly after the Ashis Nandy case. Can the media be held accountable?
The media’s role in representing all voices needs to be looked at. Many issues that come up in the festival need debate, but what is the angle of that debate? Is it a shrill debate about whether to ban or not to ban, to arrest or not to arrest, or is it in the larger context of what is actually being said? We have to ensure platforms like these remain as democratic as possible. Ashisda said something, somebody on the panel disagreed with him, members of the audience disagreed with him. It made for a discussion that is very different from a didactic political platform. We have to allow for imperfect displays of thoughts and ideas and action. It is through the imperfection and chaos that there will always be creativity and rebirth.
What do you anticipate for the future of the festival? Will it remain a bastion for freedom of expression?
Controversies are a part and parcel of your life when you’re in a public space. Yes, it distracts from the running of the festival, but we did learn a lot from last year’s debacle, and handling it this year has been much easier for us. Every year, there will be a challenge, but I think there’s great hope too.