Google Funds Dissent as Oprah Speaks, Rushdie Sparks Anger

Jaipur Literature Festival
A crowd outside IDFC Durbar Hall at the Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace in Jaipur, India. Photographer: Ketaki Gokhale/Bloomberg

Google Inc., which is opposing censorship around the world, is funding discussions about dissent as celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and MTV founder Tom Freston attend Asia’s largest literary festival.

The five-day DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, in the Indian city known for its pink monuments and forts, has attracted some 100,000 people, organizers said, the most since it began. Politicians, bankers, Bollywood actors and students have been discussing everything from music to gardening.

“The core theme of this festival is freedom of expression, which is also a core value of Google,” said Paroma Chowdhury, a spokeswoman for the company in the city of Gurgaon. “We don’t try to influence the choice of panelists, but we obviously indicated the kinds of themes we would like to support.”

Google is sponsoring six sessions, including three on the theme of dissent and a panel on the Arab Spring. The company, owner of the world’s most popular Web search engine, has led online protests against a U.S. anti-piracy bill.

Along with Facebook Inc., Google is also fighting a lawsuit in India against a court ruling to remove content deemed offensive by the government. It filed a challenge in the Delhi High Court after a judge ordered top executives to be present at a trial on March 13. The lower court warned that India may follow China’s example of blocking websites that fail to comply with government requests.

Lost Tourists

The festival’s beginnings were in 2004 when author William Dalrymple tried reading his work in public. He had an audience of 14 people, five of whom were Japanese tourists who had lost their way.

“While we have some of the most difficult and complex authors talking, we also have ‘chick lit,’ people talking about music, about sex, politics, history,” Dalrymple said in an interview. “We create a sort of carnival atmosphere in the evening with music, we put out streamers and bunting.”

Indian-born author Salman Rushdie canceled his visit to this year’s event, saying intelligence sources had said paid assassins were on their way to Jaipur to “eliminate him.” He said a day later on his Twitter Inc. account that the police had lied to him.

Rushdie was supposed to address the festival via video link today. His talk was prevented at the last minute by the owner of the 150-year-old Diggi Palace hotel, the festival venue.

Violence Threat

“There are a large number of people averse to this video link inside this property. They have threatened violence,” Ram Pratap Singh told the crowds that had assembled to listen to Rushdie. The cancellation was for everyone’s safety, he said.

Rajasthan’s police had told organizers that crowds were marching to the building intent on violence if Rushdie’s address went ahead, festival producer Sanjoy Roy said. Calling the drama of the last three weeks an “idiotic situation” and its climactic end today a “disgrace,” Roy walked off the stage in tears.

“The idea of freedom of expression is severely under attack,” said Sri Lankan-born poet Cheran during the earlier dissent discussion with Prasoon Joshi, the Indian head of McCann Worldgroup, and three other writers. “The space for dissent is narrowing all around the world.”

‘Satanic Verses’

Hari Kunzru and other authors didn’t need Google’s backing to rebel. They planned to recite parts of Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” India, home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, has banned the novel that some Muslims find blasphemous and some complained to the police. Kunzru read two passages before officers arrived and asked him to stop. The organizers issued a statement distancing themselves from the authors.

Winfrey focused on India’s spiritual prowess, amid jabs at the country’s culture. She also talked about her book club and election prospects for President Barack Obama.

“I think the world forgot that we were in the brink of a depression in our country,” and Obama helped the U.S. avoid the economic downturn, Winfrey said. “His next four years are going to be even more successful and it’s a really good thing that he remains in office.”

Clad in a green Indian kameez, or long shirt, with large earrings, the media mogul parried the moderator’s questions for an hour, came with an army of handlers and didn’t take any audience questions even as crowds jostled to listen to her.

Proulx, Shriver

This year’s lineup also included Annie Proulx, the author of “Brokeback Mountain,” Ben Okri, Kiran Nagarkar, Lionel Shriver and Sri Lanka-born Michael Ondaatje.

DBS Group Holdings Ltd.’s Chief Executive Officer Piyush Gupta flew in from Singapore, joining bankers from Hong Kong and Mumbai. European tourists rubbed shoulders with New Delhi socialites in the hotel.

Pearson Plc’s Penguin Books India unit head and Sula Vineyards Chief Executive Officer Rajeev Samant held open-air soirees where celebrities huddled around coal-fired heaters and feasted on smoked salmon and devilled egg canapes.

Glenlivet whisky flowed freely at Penguin India’s 25th anniversary party where bankers discussed India’s economy, which expanded at its slowest pace in more than two years in the three months ended Sept. 30 last year.

“A lot of the global investor community has stepped back” from India, said Gokul Laroia, managing director and head of institutional equity for Asia at Morgan Stanley. “Not because they are not interested but because they want to see resolution on policy issues.”

Corruption Scandals

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts to bolster the Indian economy have been hampered by corruption scandals, inflation and the decision last month to stall the easing of foreign investment rules in multibrand retail.

“Whether the country can engineer sustained growth is a function of the policy action they take,” said Gupta of DBS. “The bigger issue is the global economy. India’s fortunes this year are going to be fairly closely tied to it.”

Most delegates were optimistic about economic growth.

“The whole world is in this recession and growth in India has declined by a few points,” said MTV’s Freston. “It’s still better than anywhere else. They do have problems, like corruption. I’m optimistic about India though. It’s the greatest show on earth, isn’t it?”

The festival, which started on Jan. 20, is sponsored by companies including Bank of America Corp., Coca Cola Co. and Tata Steel Ltd. This year it raised 50 million rupees ($99,349), up from 4 million rupees last year, said festival producer Sanjoy K. Roy, managing director of Teamwork Films.

“We aren’t selling anything, we’re not listed,” said Manhad Narula, a director at DSC Ltd., builder of India’s largest toll plaza and the main sponsor. “There is a brand benefit associated with the high profile of attendees.”

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace, Jaipur, runs though today, Jan. 24. Information:

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE