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Nilanjana S Roy: A writer's conscience, and protests

Nilanjana S Roy 

Nilanjana S Roy

A major Indian literary festival chooses to partner with a corporate sponsor of dubious track record. The JLF Southbank festival is held in London; a few weeks before it starts, a campaign asks writers to boycott the festival, citing Vedanta's track record on tribal and adivasi rights.

Some campaigners trash the culture of literary festivals, calling them colonial; some make personal attacks on the organisers and writers who choose to attend. But these are distractions; the ethical questions the campaign raises are fundamental.

Where should a literary festival, which depends on corporate sponsorship, draw the line in its choice of partners? Should they seek professional advice on how to decide what makes a company good, dubious or rogue? Protests in the past against JLF sponsors have targetted a blanket array of organisations, from Coke and the DSC Group to the American Centre, so it is not as if all appeals to conscience are of equal merit.

Should authors join the boycott? Should they take no interest at all in these matters, arguing as some do that writing and the business of writing are separate things, or should they go to the festival and speak out against unethical practices? If they participate in one boycott, is it then their duty to question the corporate structure that underpins the publishing industry?

In 2002, Germaine Greer and Jim Crace pulled out of the Hay-on-Wye literary festival protesting Nestle's involvement as sponsor. Greer said: "I'm not leading a boycott, this was an entirely personal decision, but I will not take part in an event where a Nestle banner is sported. If other people want to, then so be it, but I won't."

Nestle's marketing of powdered baby milk formula in Africa and other countries had triggered a corporate boycott of long-standing, which ran with some breaks from 1970 to the present date. In the boycott years, though, Nestle also sponsored the very successful Smarties Book Prize from 1985 to 2007. Children from across the UK chose their favourite authors, which gave the prize a special appeal - its winners include Oliver Jeffers, Julia Donaldson and JK Rowling, who's won it thrice.

Mr Crace and Ms Greer were not wrong to withdraw from Hay-on-Wye in protest over Nestle, but neither were Ms Rowling and the more than 60 writers who've won the Smarties wrong to accept the award. There was little controversy over Nestle's sponsorship of the book prize, in part because the product - chocolate - does not set off the same debate as baby formula. With their gesture of protest, both Ms Greer and Mr Crace drew attention to Nestle's history, but they stopped short of demanding that other writers boycott the festival too.

In 2006, the writers John Berger, Arundhati Roy, Eduardo Galeano and Ahdaf Soueif called for a cultural boycott of Israel in solidarity with Palestinian writers, teachers and film-makers. This March, over 100 writers, from Susan Abulhawa and Hari Kunzru to Alice Walker and Junot Diaz, sent a letter to the PEN American Centre asking it to refuse support from the Israeli embassy for its annual World Voices festival.

In response, chair of PEN's World Voices Festival, Colm Toibin, wrote: "PEN and PWVF must always fall on the side of maximum protections for free expression. With that guiding principle in mind, PEN does not and cannot subscribe to cultural boycotts of any kind - which impede individual free expression - no matter the cause." The debate over the validity of cultural boycotts is not likely to die down any time soon.

The response from writers to the Vedanta sponsorship controversy has varied. Two writers, Aarathi Prasad and K Satchidanandan, are reported to have withdrawn over the anti-Vedanta protests. Many writers attended JLF Southbank despite the boycott call, including the transgender activist A Revathi, the novelist and poet Jerry Pinto, the historian Sunil Khilnani, Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam, the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy.

Several made it clear that they agreed with the anti-Vedanta protestors, and some, including Salil Tripathi and Ruth Padel - attempted to talk about the history of the Niyamgiri protests, particularly relevant now against the background of fresh concerns over the possible erosion of tribal rights in Odisha. For JLF, the debate should - but might not - lead them and other cultural organisers to create a blacklist of companies they feel they can't work with, and a parallel whitelist of corporations they feel they can defend.

One company might stir the conscience of writers for all the right reasons - as Mahesh Rao argued in a short, powerful appeal, sometimes a writer must ask, "How disgusting am I prepared to be?" Every writer has a personal line of conscience they will not cross. But as the poet Karthika Nair pointed out, both ways of engaging with an issue might be equally powerful: "Sometimes, it is necessary to withdraw, as a mark of protest, just as it is sometimes necessary to be present to speak and raise one's voice at that very platform."

In India, the history of boycott calls over books, art and cinema is long and inflected with violence. Over the last decade, in 2006 Indian Muslim clerics and Christian groups joined forces to prevent screenings of The Da Vinci Code. In 2007, Bajrang Dal activists successfully boycotted the film Parzania; in 2014, Baba Ramdev called for a boycott of Amir Khan's film PK, in 2015 VHP leader Sadhvi Prachi called for Hindus to boycott "films made by the Khans" (Amir, Shahrukh and Salman Khan).

Given this history, I choose not to join in boycott calls myself. "Those" protestors believe in the rightness and justice of their cause as much as "these" protestors do. But writers have many ways to protest - to speak at the venue, to stay away, or, even, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez did with the Banana Company in One Hundred Years of Solitude, make lasting art from their anger.

Boycotts are often swiftly forgotten, especially when they are ineffective, but Garcia Marquez branded United Fruit Company forever as the banana company that arrived, pursued by a leaf storm, sowing over the town "the rubble of many catastrophes that had come before it". Along with all the other ways of protest, this was a classic example of how to put the power of negative advertising to work.


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First Published: Mon, May 23 2016. 21:43 IST

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