The Bangalore Literature Festival, now in its third year, is under a cloud even before it has started. Its director, historian and author Vikram Sampath, has resigned from the festival’s organising committee. This is because a small number of “tolerant” writers said they would boycott the festival as they disagreed with Sampath’s opinion of the “award-wapsi” campaign and of Tipu Sultan. Leading the charge against Sampath are Dayanand TK and Arif Raja.
The latter referred to Sampath’s views against the award-wapsi brigade as “politically motivated and childish.” OL Nagabhushana Swamy and Malayalam poet and critic Satchidanandan also said they would boycott the festival.
Faced with a situation where the issue threatened to snowball, Sampath stepped down, but not without expressing anguish. He is one of the festival’s co-founders and, as such, is responsible for its continuing success. Last year, the event recorded an attendance of 20,000. He said, in a release, “In the interest of the organisation that I founded and nurtured, which is now being linked to my personal views and targeted, I have taken the painful decision of stepping away from all responsibility of organising the festival. The festival and the ideals it has stood for are far greater than me or any individual. It would be a shame if because of me, differing views go unheard.”
So what transgression did Sampath commit that earned the wrath of the tolerant brigade? Sampath says there are two articles he had written. In one, he explained why he would not give up his own Sahitya Akademi award.
In another, he questioned if we need history and the characters of the past to create social harmony among communities today, and whether this harmony can be founded on falsehood. Sampath also signed a petition, along with a group of very eminent historians and archeologists, urging for recognition of multiple viewpoints and narratives in Indian historiography.
Speaking to Firstpost, Sampath defended his position on award-wapsi. He said, “The Sahitya Akademi is an independent body. The jury consists of writers like me. They decide and give these awards. Sahitya Akademi awards are not given by the government, like the Padma awards. My award was handed to me by eminent Bengali historical novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay. It will be insulting to him and the eminent people on the jury if I returned the award.”
In an article titled Why I Won’t Return My Akademi Award in The Mint, he criticised the award-wapsi brigade for their selective outrage: “It is intriguing that the writer community was largely silent when books were banned, authors attacked, and rationalists killed. Why the selective outrage, as though apocalypse has descended on us as far as freedom of expression is concerned? Intolerance and violence against a contrary opinion is not a sudden phenomenon in India.”
He explained to Firstpost: “The emergency was the most intolerant time in this country. That situation has not come now. Riots are part of the country’s fabric. The Shiva Sena has been running amuck even during Congress-NCP rule. The people who make outlandish statements have always been making it. The media is sensitive and highlights everything. But are these statements influencing legislation? To attribute all this to rising intolerance is incorrect.”
He continued, “Writers like me who disagree with this mode of protest and expressed our opinion on social media were at the receiving end of reverse “liberal trolls”, branded as communal, fascist, and bootlickers of the “despotic, intolerant and authoritarian” Modi regime. These epithets were hurled at us, ironically, in support of freedom of expression.”
Sampath’s stand on Tipu Sultan also seems to have angered the writers who withdrew from the Bangalore Literature Festival. Unlike the writers who base their admiration for Tipu on a fictional account by Bhagawan Gidwani titled The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Sampath is a PhD in history and has studied the history of Mysore in detail. His book Splendours of Royal Mysore is described as the definitive account of Mysore’s Wodeyar dynasty, the longest-running dynasty in India.
In an article titled Why We Love to Hate Tipu Sultan for The Mint, he pointed out, “Tipu is still hated in many parts of Kerala, Coorg, and Mangalore, where many remember his bigotry. (Girish) Karnad dismisses this as merely an 18th century reaction to an uprising. But these are facts of history that cannot be wished away, just as some of Tipu’s progressive measures are praiseworthy. The moot question is whether we need history and the characters of the past to create social harmony among communities today, and whether this harmony can be founded on falsehood.”
He said, “As someone who has researched the history of Mysore for over 15 years, I believe I am entitled to have an intellectual standpoint on a matter of historical debate. I stand by my article(s) written in the past. I am not apologetic about them in any manner and will continue to cherish the freedom that my country gives me to air my opinion fearlessly.” With his departure from the Bangalore Literary Festival, the irony is that Vikram Sampath can fearlessly express his opinion anywhere he likes, except at the Festival, which he helped create, thanks to the intolerance of the “tolerant.”
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Tolerance, ha! Vikram Sampath can express his opinion anywhere, except at the Bangalore LitFest he founded
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