Hours after the second edition of the Republic Pondy Lit Fest came to an end Sunday, an article in ThePrint written by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, one of the speakers at the festival, became a talking point as well as a bone of contention among other participants.
As one of the organisers of the event, I could not agree more with Abhijit’s observations in the article titled ‘Pondy Lit Fest shows India’s Right-wing has more disagreements within’. Indeed, the views expressed at the festival were diverse, not allowing anyone to define what the Right means or stands for in India. However, Abhijit pointed out that until the Indian Right finds a ‘binding glue’, it would be hard for it to take on the narratives set by the Indian Left.
When non-Left is Right
When the Pondy Lit Fest was conceived two years ago, our objectives were clear. We wanted some of the foremost minds of the country to deliberate on how India could go about achieving her true potential in every walk of life. Back then, we didn’t look at this festival from the prism of Left and Right, but had to do so eventually when we realised that all the speakers were on one side of the political spectrum. Or at least that is how they have been generally categorised in public discourse.
Now, whether the Indian Right through our festival found a binding glue, or otherwise for that matter, is something that was always beyond the purview of the Pondy Lit Fest. That each one of our speakers cares deeply for India and her future, and offered their intellectual best to that end, is what will always be our festival’s binding glue. Interestingly enough, this might also be what binds the Indian Right.
In 2017, we never thought that two years down the line, the Pondy Lit Fest would become a national talking point, attract more than 80 prominent faces from across the country, and command an audience of thousands. We didn’t expect our panel discussions would be systematically televised. The Left might speak in one voice and might create formidable institutions, but it’s also a fact that the Right is finally being heard and it is platforms like the Republic Pondy Lit Fest that are facilitating it. Now whether this Right speaks in one voice or in hundred different voices is of little consequence.
In fact, I would go one step further to say that the Indian Right cannot be expected to speak in one voice. I say this not only because India’s non-Left is generally reactionary – due to the country’s conventional power structure – but also because India’s Left generally speaks in one voice for reasons other than ideology. India’s Left has been a vehicle to maintain the political status quo until 2014; since 2014, it has been a vehicle to bring about political change. The ideas it has propagated have depended on individuals, families, and political parties – not the other way around. Those from the Indian intelligentsia who opposed this style of functioning and chose instead to place the nation before the aforementioned considerations have all been categorised as the Indian Right.
While this categorisation is unfair, there’s no denying that voices believing in ‘India first’ are gaining traction. These voices have nuanced disagreements, and might not necessarily be Right-wing in the Western sense of the word. They might have varied views on Kashmir, and what to make of the beef debate in India. But as long as they offer ideas with the sole objective of India realising her potential, simple ideas to kickstart the economy and or complex idea about perceiving India’s problems and their solutions, they deserve platforms.
Disagreements mean multiplicity of ideas
The clash, or rather the interplay of ideas that we witnessed at the Pondy Lit Fest 2019 is essential. It gives the speakers a reality check, especially the younger ones whom our festival has attempted to provide a platform that they otherwise won’t get. It is this ‘clash’ of ideas that makes us a festival as opposed to a political podium from which five people repeat the same message, often in the same way too. I know this is a very unfair counter to Abhijit Iyer-Mitra’s charge that the Indian Right is unable to find common ground, but my intention here is different. Many members of the audience told us that they had been to several literature festivals in the past, but they found this one refreshing. The multiplicity of ideas prevented the Pondy Lift Fest from becoming an event full of sermons.
Moreover, as Abhijit mentions in his article, we did invite people from the Left, and many wondered why we did so. We are well aware of how uncomfortable this festival has made the Left, and there have been consistent attempts to run down the festival. We have been at the receiving end of smear campaigns, our venue partner shamefully pulled out last year, and there were attempts to urge our speakers not to take part in the festival. Our challenge to them has been to grace our platform and counter our speakers intellectually – if they can. But they continue to criticise while refusing to turn up.
Abhijit also rightly points out how the Pondy Lit Fest has grown in its second year. The events have become grander, the audience has swelled, and the interest around the festival has been palpable all over the country. Many of the sessions will also be on television. So, the answer to Abhijit’s final question – Where does the Pondy Lit Fest go from here? – is that it will continue to grow in terms of scale and audience in the years to come.
For the organiser in me, though, the objective remains the same: India lacked a platform where her foremost thinkers could deliberate publicly as to how the country could achieve her true potential – and the Pondy Lit Fest will continue to play the role of providing that platform. We hope to become India’s primary lit fest one day, generating ideas that are taken seriously across the board and play a role in shaping the destiny of India.
The author is a journalist and co-founder of the Pondy Lit Fest. Views are personal.