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Trolled over intolerance

Boycotting or abstaining from a debate is a well-known form of expressing disagreement and protest in our democracy. But the writers who did so are now being accused of holding the BLF to ransom and refusing to engage in debate.

December 03, 2015 01:01 am | Updated March 28, 2016 11:37 am IST

The debate over disturbing cases of intolerance, political ideologies that fuel hate, and state action has been reduced to this: should a writer take part in a literary event or not, and is >returning awards the right way or not to protest ?

T. M. Veeraraghav

Continuing with the spectacle over ‘award wapsi’, social media and air time on the electronic media have been lit up with the controversy over the > Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF) and then the resignation of > Vikram Sampath as director. (He is also one of the founding members and the face of BLF.) He stepped down after three > Kannada writers said they would boycott the festival to protest Mr. Sampath’s opinion that returning an award may not be his way of protesting against rising intolerance. Mr. Sampath said he had resigned “in the interest[s] of the organisation he founded and nurtured”. Did he have to? It doesn’t seem so, but he did. That’s again about individual choice.

To a simple mind that understands any debate on tolerance, it would seem perfectly all right for a writer or individual to withdraw from a festival and also question the idea of returning awards. These are within acceptable norms of expressing dissent. Amongst civil society, we have seen a multitude of opinions and forms of protest. But when one cannot even tolerate others’ views on ways to protest, leave alone what to protest about, it only exposes the intolerance in both.

The frivolousness of this debate is written all over the fact that the writers, who chose to “withdraw” from the festival, were protesting against a fellow writer’s views — not tolerance or intolerance — and on ways to express disagreement and dissent.

Boycotting or abstaining from a debate is a well-known form of expressing disagreement and protest in our parliamentary democracy. But the writers who did so are now being accused of holding an event to ransom and refusing to engage in debate.

How can it be unacceptable if a writer or individual chooses to stay away from a literary festival in order to express his or her disagreement? No matter how unfair or trivial the reason is the writer, as an individual, has the right to disengage himself/herself from or boycott an event. What is a reasonable reason for doing so is up to the individual.

Fuelling it further An appeal to reason or return is fine. But accusations and a barrage of social media comments and criticism against those who chose to boycott an event only sow the seeds for further intolerance, especially if these comments and tweets are from noted writers with innumerable followers.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Sampath chose to resign. What is even more unfortunate is that the debate on tolerance has become a casualty in an exchange that is trivial and seems more about literary festivals and returning awards, and less about the state of the nation.

The underlining theme is that any view or way to protest — I reiterate here that it is not even over what to protest — is increasingly being seen as being for or against right-wing politics or the Prime Minister. Such a myopic approach only leaves the field open for those with political agendas to dilute the core issue and allow space for a puppetry of egos to take charge.

It is not only unhealthy, but also dangerous. It exposes how difficult it has become to publicly debate a view point. Very strong attachment to opinion can hurt the spirit of a free exchange of ideas. In the process, it could make writers and academics pawns. For instance, in the present and now, the debate is centred around what a writer or academic should or should not do, and not a united voice against alarming cases of intolerance, be it the murder of a writer, activist or even an incident of a lynching.

For a nation state, tolerance, in words or in deed, is a matter defined by law. When the state or establishment fails to use the law impartially and fairly, civil society will challenge it. When the law is archaic and lawmakers refuse to remove portions like sedition, it will be challenged. The quest and purpose of a debate must be to consistently work towards making the mind of an individual, the legal and social frameworks in a society, more tolerant.

We, as a democracy, have consistently held our own and won against different political establishments. Could the debate please return to the larger issue? Or else writers and intellectuals demanding action against intolerance or any other greater common good would seem to be like politicians during an election season.

veeraraghav.tm@thehindu.co.in

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