Protests at Kanhaiya Kumar's Kolkata event show sane voice is getting lost

Abhishek Sikhwal
Abhishek SikhwalJan 31, 2017 | 20:02

Protests at Kanhaiya Kumar's Kolkata event show sane voice is getting lost

On the evening of January 28, I was in the audience at a talk discussing Kanhaiya Kumar’s recently released book, From Bihar to Tihar, as part of the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM). This particular event was held in the city’s Rabindra Sarobar Park and was quite a distance from the lit fest’s central venue at Victoria Memorial. 

The talk didn’t waste any time with introductions as Kanhaiya’s speech in JNU last year opened a debate on sedition that the county is still reeling under. His book, written in the aftermath of an experience that saw him arrested, assaulted and branded an "anti-national", was the focus for the evening because much of his persona has been subject to public scrutiny over the past year. It was a candid discussion in which the celebrity-activist-turned-author gave a brief insight into his convictions and raison d'être.


No sooner had the audience settled in their chairs than a group identifying themselves as the Bastar Solidarity Network (BSN) interrupted the event with slogans that questioned Kanhaiya for making an appearance at an event sponsored by a corporate entity that was responsible for deaths in Kalinganagar, Singur and Bastar.

Initially, at Kanhaiya’s (and the audience’s) request, the protesters sat down and held up their signs to the cameras and let the talk continue. But soon enough, another person, obviously affiliated with the group, interrupted the talk again and demanded that Kanhaiya answer his question. When given the mike, this person asked about the Kashmiri separatist movement (when they were there to protest against Tata) and kept accusing the audience (“who are in their crisp linen clothes, who are in their own bourgeois liberal bubble…”) of manhandling him.

Following his jeremiad, the protests reached a fever pitch and the protesters wouldn’t let anyone speak by subjecting those on stage to a barrage of questions. A protester made absurd claims that a journalist at the talk was abusing female protesters when nothing of the sort happened. There was also a confused woman holding up the CPM flag when it is widely acknowledged that the lone culprit found responsible for the death of Tapasi Malik in Singur was a CPM cadre. It was an evening of oxymorons made flesh and a tale that was, in the words of Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  


How the conversation went from Lenin to linen is anyone’s guess. But what I know for certain is that I’m sick of the right and the left in this country speaking for the masses. If the former is violent and ignorant, the latter is sanctimonious and has read-more-Marx-than-thou. These extremes are claiming every public platform in their clamour for attention. The only ones at a loss are a writer/artist/film director and his audience because it’s their interaction that is constantly getting interrupted.

To be sure, I think that the KLM team could have found a less controversial sponsor than Tata Steel just like I think the Jaipur Literary Fest (JLF) team could have found a better sponsor than Zee.

However, having said that, perhaps we should cut these organisers some slack because it’s difficult to host an event of such scale without a sponsor onboard. Whether it’s a CSR exercise or blatant advertising, one can’t deny that only corporations have the resources to finance such events.

State governments could host such fests but, let’s be honest, we all know how quickly that will turn into a political shitstorm. And if charities like Greenpeace and WWF or Save the Children sponsor such events then their donors would inevitably question why their donations are being used to get Suhel Seth even more drunk. 


Besides, which corporate sponsor doesn’t have skeletons in their closet? IPL was sponsored by Pepsi (who put pesticides in their drinks and consumed excessive groundwater in parched communities) and DLF (involved in land grab through unscrupulous practices).

JLF was previously sponsored by Rajnigandha, which has killed a lot more people than Zee’s caustic "journalism". Times Litfest in Mumbai and Bengaluru is hosted by The Times of India (Arnab Goswami, the former editor-in-chief of Times Now, started a campaign against intellectuals and writers and JNU students last year).

No musician worth his convictions should play at the NH7 Weekender because its title sponsor Bacardi has been accused of links to international terrorists, assassination attempts and a plot to overthrow Fidel Castro.

The upcoming India Art Fair should be boycotted because its presenting partner BMW has profited from Nazi slave labour during World War II. Let’s boycott the Indian cricket team because their kit sponsor Nike has always used sweatshops and child labour for production.

If we boycott or disrupt every event that has a questionable sponsor then we’ll just have to sit at home. I don’t have a soft corner for the cocktail-sipping socialites seen at these fests, but I don’t think they are breaking any laws. What matters is that even with these questionable sponsorships, many commoners (such as yours truly) in the audience get to interact with prominent thinkers, artists and writers.

At the JLF and KLM, I saw people from all walks of life (both fests are free) take notes and eagerly take in the varied talks. In a country that is increasingly demonising all intellectual thinking, it gave me a silver of hope to see the young and the old have a dialogue with those on stage.

'I think the KLM team could have found a less controversial sponsor than Tata Steel just like I think the Jaipur Literary Fest (JLF) team could have found a better sponsor than Zee.'

The only ugly moment for me at the JLF occurred during the talk featuring RSS leaders which was exactly as corrosive as expected. Dattatreya Hosabale, one of the leaders on stage, actually said, “We must see if there is something in the [Muslim] community that hinders development." A man in the audience got up and blamed Muslims for wanting to remain backward and said that no one could help them… to much applause and cheering.

It’s a moment that is going to make William Dalrymple and his team cringe for quite some time.  

The BSN could have gotten an answer from Kanhaiya if only they let him speak, but they were not looking for answers. They were only there to gain publicity for their political cause. If they really wanted to protest against Tata Steel then they could have similarly disrupted operations at their Chowringhee headquarters.

But where’s the fun in that? Why not muzzle one of your own (jury is out on that) instead and make it to the newspapers? Who has time for a “sanitised debate” (as one of the protesters called it in a Facebook exchange with me) when it’s so much more fun to bring things to a halt by using a person’s slogans against him? Why not exercise you freedom of expression by drowning out someone else’s?  

Kanhaiya’s talk was the only one at KLM that was far from the central venues and also the only one with low security. Perhaps the whole disruption was intended by the organisers because the protesters could certainly not break through the strict security at Victoria Memorial that was protecting more prominent figures such as Shashi Tharoor, P. Chidambaram and Rajdeep Sardesai.

Let’s put a man, who has been assaulted on multiple occasions, on a stage in a public park and give him absolutely no security. Makes total sense.     

Recently, Sanjay Leela Bansali was assaulted by the Karni Sena over an alleged misrepresentation of Padmavati in his upcoming film. It used to be that a film would be protested after it was released; now the mobs are showing up even as it is being produced.

Someone on my Facebook newsfeed said that Bansali “should be publicly lynched to make an example for pseudo-artists” (which is definitely not something that the Taliban or ISIS do). In December some "art aficionados" who go by the name of Rashtriya Hindu Ekta March (RHEM) thrashed a painter and vandalised his paintings at a Jaipur art summit for featuring semi-nude figures. Beauty, after all, is solely in the eyes of the Hindu beholder.   

The Karni Sena did not even let the director make his case and simply assumed that there will be a love scene between the characters of Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji. They think they are the final authority on history and its depiction just like the BSN think they are the only geniuses to see the inherent hypocrisy in a corporate sponsored literary event. It’s so easy for non-contributing zeroes to disrupt an event or a creative enterprise but it’s far more difficult to come up with a counter-narrative or a creative project that can take those you protest against to task.  

There is something rotten in the state of India. For groups like the Karni Sena and RHEM, anyone not on their side is a pseudo-intellectual, godless presstitute/Leftist who should be sent to Pakistan. For the ultra-Left groups such as BSN, anyone who doesn’t join them in the revolution (“THIS IS SPARTAAAA” etc. etc.) is either a rabid fascist or a docile bourgeois liberal. Between these two extremes lies the common man who just wants to go about his day, making a living and occasionally watching a movie or attending a cultural programme.

It is this common, moderate Indian who has been turned into a "dhobi ka kutta" that neither belongs to the nationalist ghar nor at the communist ghat.

In our disruptive jamboree of a democracy, I often wonder if such a moderate — who can stand up for the rights of others without losing his own identity, who can let others speak without losing his own voice and who can learn from corporate financed culture without succumbing to its charms — is a figment of my imagination.

Last updated: January 31, 2017 | 20:02
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