Nehru to Modi: Discussing the idea of India at the Kerala Literature Festival

Even as authors and publishers celebrated all things literary, politicians were the biggest crowd-pullers at the four-day event

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Jan 21, 2020 06:31:39 PM IST
Updated: Jan 21, 2020 07:04:39 PM IST

tm krishna ramachandra guha kanimozhi shashi tharoor kapil sibal bgKanimozhi: ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images; Kapil Sibal: Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images; Shashi Tharoor: Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images; Ramchandra Guha: Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images; TM Krishna: Photo by Sharp Image/Mint via Getty Images

There is a group trying to attract the youth with non-progressive ideas of ultra-nationalism and communalism, and the country will disintegrate if their attempts succeed, said Kerala Chief Minister Pinrayi Vijayan, as he inaugurated and set the tone for the fifth edition of the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) last Thursday. The four-day event on Kozhikode beach culminated on Sunday and saw more than 500 authors from across the world attend. 

While discussions ranged from environmental protection and cultural dance forms to classical music and world travel, the one thing that bound thousands of speakers and guests involved a three-letter acronym: CAA, or the Citizenship Amendment Act. The best-attended sessions, then, were those trying to deconstruct the ongoing climate of religious strife and student protests, and whether the idea of India as we know it is changing. 

The CAA, cleared in Parliament last month, makes religion a criterion for citizens for the first time. The government claims it will help non-Muslim minorities facing religious persecution in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan gain citizenship in India, while critics say the nature of the Act goes against the secular values of the Indian constitution. The National Register of Citizens, or NRC, on the other hand, will identify illegal immigrants in the country, which people believe will particularly make Muslims vulnerable to persecution.

The Kerala state government, led by Vijayan, has challenged the CAA in the Supreme Court, a move that has been opposed by Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan. The latter even had a panel discussion scheduled at the KLF on Sunday, but cancelled citing security reasons.  

The vast expanse of the Kozhikode beach that hosted the event sported a painting of Ambedkar with the word ‘Azadi’ written against it. ‘Say No to CAA’ was scribbled at regular intervals on trees and posters. Each of the five stages hosted, at any given time, a talk or debate reflecting on the various shades of regional and national politics as it plays out in the life of the common man. 

Magsaysay Award-winning musician TM Krishna remarked that the National Anthem ‘Jana Gana Mana’ has become a tool to “oppress people”, when, in fact, it was a “protest song that reminded us of the power of the individual”. He said, “The full song, including the ‘unsung part’, refers to incredible possibility, the idea of India and human struggle and much more. We need Sindh in our national anthem to remind us of all the people who are not mentioned. In the time that we are being forced with the CAA, we need many Sindhs in this country.”

Malayalam writer Paul Zachariah, stressing how people need to evaluate political figures based on public service instead of being blindly loyal, said that “we have gone off course by prioritising a party over the process of democracy”. Speaking at a panel titled ‘The Kerala Ethos of Democracy’, he blamed the media for furthering the cause of political parties rather than representing the needs of the people. 

On the second day of the festival, historian Ramachandra Guha, in his talk about constitutional nationalism versus Hindutva jingoism, reiterated that “To be an Indian, you don’t need to be Hindu, you don’t need to speak Hindi, and you don’t need to hate Pakistan,” a statement that received thunderous applause. He also pointed out that the political movement against Hindutva is handicapped by the fact that it is controlled by a single family [referring to the Gandhis dynasty of Congress] and in the absence of a strong opposition, the people will fight to protect constitutional values. 

Apart from CM Vijayan, politicians from various regional and national parties spoke at the festival, including Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh and Kapil Sibal; CPI (M) Polit Bureau member MA Baby; and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leaders Kanimozhi and Thamizhachi Thangapandian. The festival also dedicated two panels to specifically understand the spirit of secularism as envisioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, and the scientific temper of India’s first Prime Minister.

No top political leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attended the event, even though Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, the current Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs [and former State President for the BJP in Kerala] was included in the list of speakers.

Congress leader Kapil Sibal remarked that states that have voiced concerns about the CAA, including Kerala, Punjab, West Bengal and Bihar, cannot constitutionally refuse to implement it as it is a law passed by the Parliament. “You can oppose it, you can pass a resolution in the Assembly and ask the Central government to withdraw it. But saying that I won’t implement it is going to be problematic, and will create more difficulties,” he said, explaining that he is unsure of the legalities with respect to the execution of the NPR and that it is a “grey area”. 

Calling the protest against the CAA “the new Quit India movement”, Kanimozhi, who is a Lok Sabha MP from the Thoothukudi constituency, said, “The saffronisation of the South has stopped in its tracks only because of the pride people have in their cultural and linguistic identity. The BJP believes in homogenisation of Hinduism. They want to take away all our identities, our colours, and paint it orange.”

Kanimozhi also stressed that the Opposition “needs to get its act together”, a point echoed by Guha and Sibal. Later, Sibal’s party colleague Tharoor said that the only way to diffuse protests across the country would be if Modi and Shah drop the idea of the NRC altogether and uphold the secular, democratic values that India stands for.

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