Khushwant Singh Literary Festival – A Few Takeaways

The fifth KSLT was held in Kasauli from the 14th Oct. to 16th Oct. this year. Here are a few impressions that I left with.

The audience/ attendees were the usual high brows at such gatherings, but the star performer was a simple, unassuming, Hindi speaking young man who goes by the name of Kanhaiya Kumar. Yes, the former President of the JNU Students’ Union and currently being tried for ‘sedition’ by a government and a system which have made a mockery of the law. Kanhaiya spoke on the 15th. on his idea of  ‘Nationalism’ with an eloquence which commanded a pin drop silence.

Former JNU President Kanhaya Kumar (Photo Courtesy Ajay Bhatia

Former JNU President Kanhaiya Kumar (Photo Courtesy Ajay Bhatia)

His message was powerful but simple: in a country as diverse as India nationalism cannot be described in unitary or even binary terms; to define it in terms of one particular religion (as is being currently sought to be done) is to misrepresent and demean it; it is equally obnoxious to define it in terms of support for the army – we respect and love our defense forces, but we have the right to question them without being called anti-nationalists; Indian nationalism cannot but be multi-cultural, multi-religious and widely inclusive; the current narrative on nationalism as framed by the ruling BJP exposes the face of fascism, not democracy, and has to be resisted by all right thinking people.

[Incidentally, I am in complete agreement with his views, especially where he spoke about an ersatz nationalism based on unquestioning support for the army. Any blind support is suspect. The pity is that senior officers of the army, unused to the wiles of the Indian politician, are being taken in by the BJP in its effort to co-opt the defense services into its own narrative and give it a patina of respectability. The BJP is converting its religion based nationalism into a ‘religio-military’ nationalism, which is even more dangerous for a democracy. In this it is being unwittingly assisted by a whole horde of retired Generals who have descended onto TV studios to proclaim that the army cannot be questioned. Why not ? A report in the Hindustan Times on the 18th. of this month shockingly reveals that it too can have feet of clay: a senior general, Lt. General B.K. Chopra, the Head of the Army Medical Corps. (now retired) has exposed how the system of disability pensions is being widely misused by senior defense officers to fraudulently obtain hefty tax free disability pensions after retirement. Just yesterday Prashant Bhushan broke the story of defense officers being compromised in honey-traps in defense deals. These revelations prove why holy cows have no place in an open society. By stridently claiming a deified status these generals are just playing into the BJP’s hands.]

The logic and the passion in Kanhaiya’s words were self-evident, but what was astonishing was the response of the audience. Remember, this was not the usual Kanhaiya crowd of leftists, activists, students and similar species for whom the government and TIMES NOW savants have nothing but contempt. The audience consisted of retired (senior) military and civil service officers and their families, authors, journalists, academics and sundry socialites. Notwithstanding this, I was amazed at the response Kanhaiya managed to elicit from them – they were mesmerised, hanging onto his every word, every now and then breaking out into loud applause and clapping – he received more ovations at Kasauli than Mr. Modi did at the US Congress ! This is something the BJP should take note of: Kanhaiya’s views are resonating with a much larger section of the country than the party thinks, and if even the privileged elite empathise with him then the BJP has cause to be worried. We have not heard the last of this idealistic and fiery nationalist, and I can’t but help reflect on the irony of it: Kanhaiya is the creation of Mr. Modi himself – had the government not lost its head and sense of proportion over the JNU incident, Kanhaiya would probably still be sharing his ideas with a dozen students or so over aloo ka parathas in JNU’s Ganga Dhaba instead of spreading his message throughout the country. Mr. Modi has unwittingly baptised him in the fire of police high-handedness and converted the raw ore into steel and made him a national rallying point – he may yet live to regret his mistake.

* * * *
Given Mr. Khushwant Singh’s love of the mountains and that the Festival was being held in Kasauli, his second home, one would have liked, and expected, that the organisers had spared some more time for discussions on environmental issues impacting Himachal. Only one session was scheduled on this topic, and that too was curtailed. Its a pity, because the Himachal that Khushwant Singh loved so much is plagued by devastation of nature on a colossal scale by hydel projects, cement mining, unplanned urbanisation, unnecessary road construction and unregulated tourism run amock. The state’s policy makers are now almost exclusively focused on politics and on feathering their nests in anticipation of an adverse result in the next elections, the senior bureaucracy, never known for any sensitivity to the environment, is too engrossed in managing promotions and postings, and the few NGOs who occasionally protest are ignored. Meanwhile climate change, impending earthquakes, rapidly expanding glacial lakes and disappearing rivers are becoming more real every day. I wish some of these issues had been discussed – surely they are as vital and relevant as the 1961 war, the state of the economy and the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan, all of which found more time ? Maybe next time.

* * * *

Kasauli Market (Photo Courtesy - Ajay Bhatia)

Kasauli Market (Photo Courtesy – Ajay Bhatia)

Kasauli is a disaster waiting to happen. I visited this once quaint town after many years and was appalled at its condition. I met many old residents of Kasauli who complained bitterly about the ruination of a once sylvan settlement. The main road from Dharampur looks like a bombed out stretch from Syria, Garkhal has become a choke point and desperately needs a by-pass, huge buildings (with little or no parking), mainly hotels, are coming up all over the place, no thought has been paid either to the traffic issues or the carrying capacity before allowing these monstrosities, heritage buildings are being demolished ruthlessly (I was informed by one lady that the old Rest-House, a British era structure, has just been demolished to make way for a multi-storey, cement and concrete hotel !) The less said about the four laning of the Parwanoo- Solan highway, the better. Its a highway to Hell, and I’ve already written about it earlier in these columns, so I won’t repeat myself. [PARWANOO-SHIMLA FOUR LANING– HIGHWAY TO DISASTER. 10th March 2015] . Are we condemned to be ruled by philistines for ever ?

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.....he has made them his home.

4 Comments

  • Nodnat says:

    So good to read about the 5th KSLT, which sadly i was unable to attend and meet up with Mr Shukla and over beer in the Sun, share his angst about the ongoing environmental pillage and plunder underway there (and everywhere) in the name of ‘development’. Environmental thinking seems to be getting limited to discussions and marathons and road shows and ‘action’ to photo-ops with the high and mighty wielding witches brooms.

    It is so heartening to read about the response to Mr Kanhaiya’s eloquence; there is yet hope for cultural diversity to flourish in India, despite much of our biodiversity facing extinction.

  • Avay Shukla says:

    Indeed, Nodnat, it would have been a pleasure to have caught up with you again after all these years! To further murder Omar Khayyam:

    ” Here with a slice of pizza beneath the bough,
    A flask of beer, a blog on Hillpost and thou
    Beside me cribbing in the wilderness
    And Kasauli is Paradise enow..! “

  • kabir kumar mukkerjee-mustafi says:

    No not forever, only till the next disaster. And I am not thinking rock slides.

  • With permission from ParthoSarothy Sengupta putting out this comment for the blog post that was on email:-

    Folks– Avay’s last bit of the article in the link is most painful – roads of Kasuali. I was driving on the Muzaffarpur-Motihari-Bettiah North Bihar region barely a week ago and what congestion, dust with different types of transport!!!- (including mule carts/autos/rickshas/cars/trucks/people -all packed into just one commercial matrix). The Indain Elephant was only missing and with it one could have transported oneself into the British Era. A veritable 21st century Black hole really. How can brains be functional in such India to create start-ups/jobs unless they have the ‘freedom’ as in Hyd Univ /Jadavpur Univ/ JNUs to rebel-eh?

    And this is the worry – this over-population and lack of gainful employment with inability to generate worthy employment beyond semi-rural/semi-urban zones in our country. Everyone is madly running for the “do rupaiyaas” in these regions as others are running for their “do lacs” in the urban areas. Our Make in India jibes run a poor last in this mad race of oneup(wo)manship; with mfg sector hardly picking up to contribute beyond 12% of GDP! The WB and Moodys have also not been very generous of our assessments- even after 2.5 years of fresh leash of governance. (the previous ones had their marvelously “stuck states” too!

    Kanhaiya, as per me, is a storm in a tea-cup. The tornado is already around us; separating vast geographical space and distance make us pass time in make-believe worlds of our different perceptions. Kanhaiya does not know how to go beyond his matrix and he is lucky enough to be hauled into such meetings to provide moral boosting to the audience- elitist, urbane or rural….he is happy championing the cause as all youth his age should; how does it at all matter for the generalities? Power grows from the barrel of the Gun- had said a great man eons ago!

    We are jacked whether with the BJP, Congress or the MahaGathabardhan or even ‘ma-mati-manush of great didis- fool to rule us. Don’t we know they are all secret friends of one another: the da vinci code lurks among them also.

    The best among them, the passionate ones in politics, belong to different political parties unfortunately & will never unite.

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