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In India, a Clash of Globalizations Sinks a Litfest

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Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Every January these past few years, some of the world’s leading novelists, historians, philosophers, and sociologists have been drawn to the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. Quickly outgrowing its modest beginnings in 2006, the event now sets the standard for the many new literary festivals from Brazil to Bali that illustrate what David S. Grewal calls “network power” -- the basic means of emulation and convergence through which cultural and economic globalization proceeds.

Like the annual congregations of political and financial elites at Davos, Switzerland, and Aspen, Colorado, gatherings of authors, publishers and journalists now manifest a “desire to conform to a common pattern and be recognized by others,” as Grewal puts it. The rapid rise of the Jaipur Literature Festival, assisted by some generous corporate sponsorship, confirms that such growing “global networks of sociability” are irresistible -- initially, at least.

However, for two successive years the festival has provoked much rancorous controversy. Last year, alleged threats from some Muslim agitators forced the cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s visit to Jaipur. This year, some offhand remarks by Ashis Nandy, one of India’s major public intellectuals, about corruption’s egalitarian possibilities -- as a source of empowerment for Dalit and other low castes -- provoked Dalit politicians to demand his arrest and prosecution.

Literary Wildfires

What is it about the Jaipur Literature Festival that sparks such wildfires of outrage? After all, Rushdie has been a frequent and often highly visible visitor to India in the past decade. Dalits are exposed every day to atrocious violence.

Broad explanations stress the growing threat to freedom of speech in India posed by political and religious extremists, abetted by an unscrupulous and sensationalist media. An undermotivated government is not only unable to shield India’s writers and artists; it is often complicit in the general assault on them. (This month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee apparently made good her threat, issued during last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, to block Rushdie’s visit to Kolkata.)

All of these accounts dramatize a supposed conflict between a dynamic new India, as agile in the free global market of ideas as of goods, and an inertial old Bharat rendered ungovernable by a flailing state and primordial religious, ethnic and caste identities.

But the cliched binary of New-versus-Old India misses how Jaipur has become another battlefield for the contemporary world’s kulturkampf -- one made inevitable by cultural globalization.

As a prominent mascot of India’s intellectual cosmopolitanism, the Jaipur Literature Festival undoubtedly offers enhanced freedom of speech and broadened cultural choices. The festival is proudly hospitable to literature produced by perennially underrepresented caste groups. It has also hosted discussions with Kashmiri and Pakistani writers. So why then does it provoke so much discontent and resentment?

In many ways, the recent controversies at Jaipur could seem to signify the growing friction between transnational elites and those--vote-seeking politicians -- self-appointed spokespersons of minorities -- who remain deeply invested in the fractious politics of interests and identity within the nation-state.

Still, it won’t do to put the blame entirely on intolerant politicians, opportunistic TV anchors and apparently politicized but illiberal masses. What if global networks of sociability, contrary to their claims to “openness” and “pluralism,” actually breed political and intellectual uniformity, insidiously promoting old and new hierarchies?

Davos Decline

Pakistani writers in Jaipur, for one, are unlikely to be invited to speak on Kashmir. Revealingly in 2011, two major Kashmiri writers refused to attend a proposed literary festival in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir state’s summer capital, claiming that it was “meant to give legitimacy to a brutal, repressive regime.”

Certainly, Davos Man -- as well as the Kashmiri writer engaged in transnational deliberations -- has discovered that politics remain national, bound by older notions of territory and sovereignty.

But it would be a mistake to see the Muslim or Dalit detractors of Rushdie and Nandy as holdovers from a pre-globalization past of stagnant nation-states. They, too, make their claims before a contemporary global audience (hence the significance of Jaipur as a setting); and far from subscribing to the networked elite’s broad consensus about civil rights, democracy and economic development, they are creating their own meanings of what it means to be modern.

In general, such nodes of global civil society as Jaipur and Davos are beginning to lose their legitimacy and authority; they are increasingly challenged from below -- often in uncivil tones -- by flexible new associations of the previously voiceless, which are fast developing their own forms of network power.

It is slowly becoming clear that globalization in its late, separatist phase is generating a bewildering heterogeneity of leaderless mutinies, rebellions, grievances and ideas of the self within society.

As Grewal points out, “At first we pull together, and then we push apart, in search of both universal recognition and solidarity within a particular group.” We know a bit about the ongoing reconfiguration and reassertion of Muslim identity from France to Indonesia, ranging from the rise of Islamist parties to the growth of televangelists and the voluntary adoption by middle-class women of headscarves.

But not much is known about the political imagination of young Kashmiri protesters, who see their own struggles for dignity and freedom as twinned with those of the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement.

Dalits in India, too, have broken out of the pedagogic national narrative to which they were once confined. At a watershed conference on racism sponsored by the United Nations in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, many Dalit delegates faced down objections from their upper-caste Indian colleagues to present caste-oppression as similar to racial oppression, conjoining a relatively little-understood Indian experience with a universal one.

Indeed, this new politics of dignity and redistribution draws upon a transnational discourse of rights and liberties. However well-intentioned, Ashis Nandy’s suggested means of socioeconomic mobility could only seem condescending to many Dalits, who have their own internationalist ideas of self-empowerment, and look beyond India’s flailing state to realize them.

A prominent Dalit columnist in India claims that free markets, rather than affirmative action, will release his community from centuries of oppression and backwardness and usher it into the modern world. Many Indians know the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar as the author of the Indian constitution. His modern-day interpreters, however, stress Ambedkar’s rejection of India’s caste-based politics and culture and his unique “project of fusing European Enlightenment thought with anti-metaphysical Buddhism.”

Many different, clashing ideas of the past and future are being fashioned in India’s increasingly cacophonous public sphere. The new “glocal” identities formed within it add to the country’s deep cultural eco-diversity that Nandy himself has long championed.

In this context of ferment, the Jaipur Literature Festival seems an instance of a global network of sociability that was initially open to, but finally incompatible with, its more locally sourced counterparts -- those that uphold causes, principles and rights other than the ones standard among the dominant intellectual and academic elites. The festival’s greater openness and diversity will expose it, ironically, to even greater volatility.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India.) The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at