The Tata family, including Tata Motors chairman Ratan Tata, 'run more than 100 companies in 80 countries'. Photograph: Denis Balibouse /Reuters
Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man, is personally worth $20bn. He holds a majority controlling share in Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), a company with a market capitalisation of $47bn and global business interests that include petrochemicals, oil, natural gas, polyester fibre, special economic zones, fresh food retail, high schools, life sciences research and stem cell storage services. RIL recently bought 95% shares in Infotel, a TV consortium that controls 27 TV news and entertainment channels in almost every regional language. Infotel owns the only nationwide license for 4G broadband. Ambani also owns a cricket team.
RIL is one of a handful of corporations that run India. Some of the others are the Tatas, Jindals, Vedanta, Mittals, Infosys, Essar and the other Reliance (Adag), owned by Mukesh's brother Anil. Their race for growth has spilled across Europe, central Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their nets are cast wide; they are visible and invisible, overground as well as underground. The Tatas, for example, run more than 100 companies in 80 countries. They are one of India's oldest and largest private sector power companies. They own mines, gas fields, steel plants, telephone, cable TV and broadband networks, and run whole townships. They manufacture cars and trucks, own the Taj hotel chain, Jaguar, Land Rover, Daewoo, Tetley Tea, a publishing company, a chain of bookstores, a major brand of iodised salt and the cosmetics giant Lakme. Their advertising tagline could easily be "you can't live without us".
The era of the privatisation of everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India's new mega-corporations are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot that is spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It's a dream come true for businessmen – to be able to sell what they don't have to buy.
Of late, the main mining conglomerates have embraced the arts – film, art installations and the rush of literary festivals that have replaced the 1990s obsession with beauty contests. Vedanta, currently mining the heart out of the homelands of the ancient Dongria Kond tribe for bauxite, is sponsoring a "Creating Happiness" film competition for young film students who they have commissioned to make films on sustainable development. Vedanta's tagline is "Mining Happiness".
The Jindal Group brings out a contemporary art magazine and supports some of India's major artists (who naturally work with stainless steel). Essar was the principal sponsor of the Tehelka Newsweek Think Festthat promised "high-octane debates" by the foremost thinkers from around the world, which included major writers, activists and even the architect Frank Gehry.
Tata Steel and Rio Tinto (which has a sordid track record of its own) were among the chief sponsors of the Jaipur literary festival. . Many of the world's best and brightest writers gathered to discuss love, literature, politics and Sufi poetry. Some tried to defend Salman Rushdie's right to free speech by reading from his proscribed book, The Satanic Verses. In every TV frame and newspaper photograph the logo of Tata Steel (and its tagline, "Values Stronger Than Steel") loomed, a benign, benevolent host. The enemies of free speech were the supposedly murderous Muslim mobs, who, the festival organisers told us, could have even harmed the schoolchildren gathered there.
Yes, the hardline Darul-uloom Deoband Islamic seminary did protest at Rushdie being invited to the festival. Yes, some Islamists did gather at the festival venue to protest and yes, outrageously, the state government did nothing to protect the venue. The battle for free speech against Islamist fundamentalism made it to the world's newspapers. It is important that it did. But there were hardly any reports about Tata, the festival sponsors' role in the war in the forests of central India – a war ostensibly waged against Maoists, but actually against all those who are resisting displacement by corporations such as Tata.
There were no reports either about the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, which make even thinking an anti-government thought an offence. Or about the mandatory public hearing for the Tata Steel plant in Lohandiguda which local people complained actually took place hundreds of miles away in Jagdalpur, with a hired audience of 50 people, under armed guard. Where was free speech then?
No one mentioned Kalinganagar where, in 2006, police fired on those who protested against the construction of a boundary wall by Tata Steel. No one mentioned that journalists, academics and film-makers working on subjects unpopular with the Indian government – like the surreptitious part it played in the genocide of Tamils in the war in Sri Lanka, or the recently discovered unmarked graves in Kashmir – were being denied visas or deported straight from the airport.
But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses. We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata hotels, sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khatey hain. We're under siege.
If the sledgehammer of moral purity is to be the criteria for stone-throwing, then the only people who qualify are those who have been silenced already. Those who live outside the system; the outlaws in the forests or those whose protests are never covered by the press, or the well-behaved dispossessed, who go from tribunal to tribunal, bearing witness, giving testimony.
But the Litfest gave us our aha! moment. Oprah came. She said she loved India, that she would come again and again. It made us proud.
• This is an edited extract from a longer article that can be read on dawn.com