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If Vikram Sampath's stepping down isn't intolerance, I'm not sure what is

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriDec 01, 2015 | 14:35

If Vikram Sampath's stepping down isn't intolerance, I'm not sure what is

It was obvious from the word go that the debate on intolerance would lose its original intent and get into murky territory. What started as a genuine protest after the death of rationalists and the lynching of a man in Dadri has now turned into a free-for-all. All perspective has been lost and any voice of dissent towards the intolerance brigade is swiftly nipped in the bud.

The latest victim of this trend is Bangalore-based writer Vikram Sampath, founder and organiser of Bangalore Literature Festival, who has stepped down from his position after certain participants refused to attend the Fest on account of Vikram's involvement. The Fest is due to take place in the city over the coming weekend, and will host star speakers like Shashi Deshpande and Mridula Garg.

Vikram has shared his thoughts on the subject in a Facebook post, in which he makes clear that he has become the victim of a pernicious intolerance that refuses the airing of any views different from its own. On two counts, Vikram deviated from the "party" line on intolerance. One, he refused to return his Sahitya Akademi award under the plea, made by several others, that the award represented the love of the people and not the patronising of any government.

Two, he drew the ire of the "liberals" due to his comments on the recent Tipu Sultan controversy. As far back as 2014, Vikram had written a detailed piece in Mint, in which he presented the facts of the case that he had gleaned during his research on Tipu. Sample a passage from the writeup: "[Under Tipu's rule] [t]he names of places were Islamised, new coins minted, Persian replaced Kannada as the court language, old palaces, forts and bridges were destroyed and reconstructed in the same place - all in an obvious attempt to obliterate every trace of Wodeyar rule and stamp his own."

When the Karanataka government's plans to celebrate Tipu's birth anniversary led to clashes and violence in the state, Sampath reiterated his objections to calling Tipu a "hero". Critics lambasted Sampath for sullying the legacy of Tipu, when he did no such thing. Later in the Mint article, he writes: "This is where the manner in which contemporary political discourse has intruded into the life of a historical figure, has muddied waters. In our zeal to be on the Right or Left of Indian politics, we have thrust Tipu (and other rulers like him) to the scrutiny of 'secularism', 'communalism' and 'nationalism'- terms that were non-existent in 18th century India. Judging characters of the past by the yardsticks and definitions of today is being grossly unfair to them because the facts don't fit our straightjacket."

Sampath's remarks are valuable because they urge us to look at our history in a fresh light. For too long, figures of Indian history have been seen through a left vs right prism. All Sampath asks is that we begin to reappraise the yardsticks by which we celebrate or denounce figures from the past. He does not call Tipu a villain, but equally, he asks that we desist from calling him a hero.

Where is the bigotry in this? But, three writers - Arif Raja, TK Dayanand and OL Nagabhushana - have refused to participate in the Bangalore Literature Fest with Sampath on its organising committee. The Fest is a small enterprise that does not command the pulling power of a Jaipur Literature Festival. Worried that the controversy might snowball and derail the festival, Sampath has chosen to step down.

The idea of boycott is a powerful tool in the hands of those who are unhappy with the system and want to make their displeasure know non-violently. But the nature of the boycott and the reasons for it should not be trivialised. Vikram did not indulge in hate speech. He merely presented his views on Award Wapsi and Tipu Sultan, views that are rooted in history. Yet, he was hounded out for refusing to bow to received wisdom on what counts as "liberal" and "bigoted". In a world wracked with violence and terror, surely freedom of speech is a goal we must all cherish without partisan agendas.

The Bangalore Literature Fest is in its fourth year and has become an important part of the city's cultural calendar due to the untiring efforts of Sampath and other organisers. Not only has he stepped down from his position as organiser, he has also offered to not participate if his presence threatens to jeopardise the festival.

If this does not sound like intolerance, I am not sure what does.

Last updated: December 02, 2015 | 11:27
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