Controversy

The hurt runs deep

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Photo: K. Pichumani

A session in progress at the festival in Southbank, London. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar explains why he opposed Vedanta’s sponsorship of the Jaipur Literary Festival in London.

WITH the likes of Patrick French, Tahmina Anam, Jerry Pinto, Salil Tripathi, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and Ferdinand Mount pencilled in for talks, everything was going right for the third edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) Southbank-2016. William Dalrymple, the festival’s director, was happy to head for England and escape Delhi’s summer, which was reaching its peak.

All was fair and fine for the five-day event held from May 21 to 25 until some 100 writers, academics and students in an open letter on the “Boycott Vedanta JLF London” Facebook event page asked the invitees to boycott the festival as it was sponsored by Vedanta, a company that is allegedly responsible for vast human and environmental tragedies in Australia, Asia and Africa. Only a couple of authors heeded the advice and pulled out of the festival, but it was enough to put the festival in the spotlight.

Ethics of sponsorship

While the issue started a debate on the ethics of sponsorship and the need for the same, many began to question the association of a mining company with a literary celebration.

Frontline caught up with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, one of the signatories to the letter, whose The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was a sleeper hit in literary circles and was shortlisted for the Best Fiction prize at The Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai a couple of years ago. Although Ashok Srinivasan’s delectable short story collection, Book of Common Signs, won the prize, encomiums were showered on Shekhar.

He subsequently won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Since then the rating of Shekhar, a medical doctor by qualification, has gone up by several notches.

The most clinching evidence of this came at the JLF-Southbank festival where he stood up to be counted as a voice against rampant, even cruel, expansion of big industrial houses to the detriment of local people and culture. Shekhar said he signed the letter as a matter of principle and not because of the presence of celebrity authors at the event.

“The reason for signing the letter requesting the delegates to JLF-Southbank not to attend the festival was the lead sponsor of this event Vedanta,” he said.

In its response to the signed open letter, Vedanta had said that it had “world-class standards of governance, safety, sustainability and social responsibility” and that “the size and scale” of its commitment to corporate social responsibility and “sustainability is one of the most robust in India”.

Shekhar said: “I have been following Vedanta’s activities in Odisha. It is trying to displace the Dongria Kondh Adivasi group to take control of Niyamgiri, the hills the Dongria Kondhs hold sacred. In fact, it can also be said that Niyamgiri might be all that the Dongria Kondh have, it is like their identity.”

Matter of identity

As an Adivasi himself, Shekhar is hurt by Vedanta’s actions. “I am a Santhal who follows the religion Sarna, a religion that practises the worship of nature and the spirits of ancestors. I understand how important Niyamgiri is to the Dongria Kondh. The Niyamgiri issue is an environmental one, no doubt, but to an Adivasi like me it also is a matter of identity. I signed this letter against the Vedanta for two reasons: the environment and identity,” he said.

Questioning Vedanta’s claim that it creates “a shared understanding with host communities” based “on the principle of free, prior informed consent, whereby local communities have the right to participate in decision-making about access to natural resources”, Shekhar raised the issue of adequate compensation. “If the Dongria Kondh are displaced from their villages, forests and hills, they will, certainly, have nothing. If they are rehabilitated or compensated, they can start life anew and live. Even if they are not rehabilitated or compensated, they might still struggle and live. But would this living be enough? Is living without an identity any living at all? Will the Dongria Kondh get Niyamgiri back? Their identity back? Without Niyamgiri, what will the Dongria Kondh be? I have seen Santhals losing identity. I do not want to see any Adivasi group go through this crisis. Hence, I signed the letter.”

Issues of displacement

Then there are issues of displacement; people hitherto dependent on natural resources for a living migrating to cities in search of work. “Once the Dongria Kondh are displaced, they might end up as migrant labourers in cities. Their children might be forced to beg. Their women might be trafficked and sold into prostitution or domestic slavery. At the cost of the lives of the Dongria Kondh, Vedanta would earn millions, perhaps even more.” On Vedanta’s claim that it spent $42 million on community development initiatives in India last year, Shekhar cites the example of the plight of Santhals following the actions of Tata Steel.

“The damage that Tata Steel has done to Santhals around Jamshedpur is evident to all. One of the most famous iron and steel factories in the world has been built on the land that was once owned by Santhals. But did Santhals reap any benefit from it? Not at all. People from outside came to Jamshedpur in the wake of the Tata’s iron and steel factory. Santhals were pushed out to the peripheries. Today, Tata Steel is run by non-Adivasis…. Instead of rightfully making Santhals its shareholders, Tata Steel is training Santhal women to become truck drivers and machine operators. That is Tata Steel’s idea of women’s empowerment! First you snatch away a woman’s land, of which she was the queen, and then you make her a driver or a servant on that same land that is now owned by you. How convenient! Instead of sending Santhal youth to management institutes—so that they could take up management positions in Tata Steel—the company is teaching them handicrafts. Is this the kind of rehabilitation we Adivasis deserve? Is this what Vedanta plans to do with the Dongria Kondh?”

The hurt runs deeper. Shekhar, like the other signatories to the open letter, feels Vedanta’s sponsorship of the literary festival is an attempt at whitewashing its image.

“To clean up their image, rich corporate houses sponsor high-brow cultural events. After killing the Adivasis in Kalinga Nagar in Odisha, Tata Steel sponsored an Adivasi-themed literary event called Samvaad in November 2015 in Jamshedpur. This event was, ironically, attended by several Adivasi intellectuals, many of whom proudly flaunted their presence at that event, which was, in my opinion, nothing more than a cheap and hurriedly put together public relations event,” Shekhar said. “We Adivasis have never benefited by industries. Any industry, mining, factory, anything. We are only slaves for corporate houses. In Jamshedpur, Santhals are slaves on the same land that their ancestors used to own hundreds of years ago; while non-Adivasis, the so-called forward communities, God knows where they came from, today they rule over Jamshedpur and consider Santhals, in fact, all Adivasis, inferior. Isn’t this going to happen to the Dongria Kondh as well if Vedanta succeeds? As an Adivasi, as someone who has seen Adivasis being destroyed, as an Adivasi who is, luckily, in a position where my voice will, hopefully, be heard, I condemn Vedanta and every corporate house that aims to destroy Adivasis. If you corporate houses are so good and honest and ethical, why don’t you consider Adivasis your equal? Why don’t you make Adivasis shareholders, partners in your profits? You will take our hills, forests, rivers and destroy our people and make us your slaves, and you think we will let you do that? Never.”

He dismissed Vedanta’s defence of taking everybody along. “In the times we are living in, can we really trust Vedanta or any corporate house? They will claim one thing and go ahead and do just the opposite.” Shekhar is similarly unmoved by JLF 2016’s producer Sanjoy Roy’s statement in response to the open letter that the JLF was an “open platform” for “free and frank discussions” where “sponsors do not influence choices, nor have a say in our content”. Shekhar said: “Sanjoy Roy’s letter is short, minus any embellishments, and quite wise. We cannot trust corporate houses; but as literature festivals, which have become quite vital now, we have to, somehow, trust them and have faith in their promise that they would be open platforms, which are not influenced by their sponsors. When I participated in the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur in January 2015, I felt quite strange seeing the logos of the JLF and Rajnigandha together. I mean, does a paan masala brand go well with books and literature? But then I realised that for the JLF to remain what it is—the biggest open literature festival in the world, one which is free in India—it has to depend on sponsors. Sponsors who can put in that much money to attract people and help set up an ‘open platform’ for writers and thinkers to air their ideas and reach out to thousands of people. For that, sponsorship is needed. However, it is the responsibility of the organisers to ensure that the sponsor does not grow bigger than the festival or its speakers.

“Also, if I were to organise a literature festival and had a choice, I would rather choose a liquor company or a gutka-tobacco company than a mining company or a real estate company with histories of killing and displacing people to acquire land.

“The open letter said, ‘Literature doesn’t exist in vacuum. As public figures, we believe that writers and artists also have responsibilities.’ In my opinion, it is a good thing that we writers are stepping beyond our ivory towers and coming out in the open and protesting against things that should be opposed. However, there should not be a herd mentality. A writer should not protest just because every writer is protesting… one should really feel for a cause before supporting it. One should not feel pressured to support or oppose anything.

“Also, we should not be selective in our protests. Today we are protesting against JLF Southbank because Vedanta is its chief sponsor. Reason: ‘Vedanta’s activities are destroying the lives of thousands of people in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Punjab [in India] and also in Zambia, South Africa and Australia.’ This is a fair enough reason. But when Essar violated human rights in Chhattisgarh and then went ahead and sponsored a think fest in Goa, why was there no protest? The Tata group sponsors Tata Literature Live in Mumbai, the Apeejay Kolkata Lit Fest, and Samvaad in Jamshedpur; why is there no protest? Why is this protest only against Vedanta? If we protest only against Vedanta, then are we not guilty of selective outrage?”

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