India: Kashmir litfest finds writers’ criticism hard to take
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India: Kashmir litfest finds writers’ criticism hard to take

Kashmir’s much-hyped literary festival has been cancelled. The organisers of ‘Harud: The Autumn Literature Festival’, scheduled for September 24-26 in Srinagar, cited the possibility of violence as the main reason behind this decision. The festival secretariat said they were concerned about the possibility of protests and the “heightened” nature of the debate.

The debate in question was the incisive criticism that the organisers faced from writers, journalists, filmmakers and artists, among others, over the self-styled “apolitical” nature of the festival, apart from it being held in an atmosphere where free speech is stifled.


Srinagar-based photojournalist Showkat Shafi is seen in this photograph being assaulted by the Jammu and Kashmir Police on August 19, 2011. He was carrying out his professional duties, as is clear from the camera in his hand that the police are trying to snatch away. He and his Mexican photographer colleague were detained at the police station and beaten up, and allowed to be hospitalised only five hours later. The police said they mistook them for stone-pelters. Photo credit: Faisal Khan.

An open letter on August 25 that was signed by over 200 individuals said:

A literary festival, by definition, is an event that celebrates the free flow of ideas and opinions. It not only assumes a freedom from fear. It demands a certain independence of mind and spirit. To hold it in a context where some basic fundamental rights are markedly absent, indeed, denied to the population, is to commit a travesty. In fact, as literary and artistic festivals held elsewhere, Israel and Sri Lanka for example, show, such events are sometimes used to falsely assert the existence of basic freedoms, even as they are denied to larger sections of the population.

The letter, in fact, never gave a specific call for a boycott. It asserted:

We fear, therefore, that holding such a festival would, willy-nilly, dovetail with the state’s concerted attempt to portray that all is normal in Kashmir. Even as the reality on the ground is one of utter abnormality and a state of acute militarisation and suppression of dissent, rights and freedoms.

We would firmly support the idea of a literary/artistic festival in Kashmir if we were convinced that its organising was wholly free from state interference and designs, and was not meant to give legitimacy to a brutal, repressive regime. This letter is an attempt to state our position and to urge the festival participants to ponder some of these issues and concerns.

The organisers remained recalcitrant while announcing the virtually anonymous cancellation, on August 30:

Born out of the best intentions to platform work of emerging and established writers in Kashmir, the festival has been hijacked by those who hold extreme views in the name of free speech. A few people who began the movement to boycott the festival have no qualms in speaking on and about Kashmir across international forums, but have refused to allow other voices, including writers, poets and theatre people from the Valley and across India to enjoy the right to express themselves at the Harud festival.

What they, however, did not say was that those who had signed the letter (including this writer) have no track record of violence. The allusion could probably have been to a Facebook group which was outraged over the possibility of Salman Rushdie participating in the festival.

Yet, all its ire was aimed at those who had signed this letter. The veiled attacks were directed at, among others, Basharat Peer (author of ‘Curfewed Night’ ) and Mirza Waheed (author of ‘The Collaborator’). If writings from and about Kashmir have suddenly generated interest in the literary world, a lot of credit would go to these two writers. That the criticism should come from these very writers did not go down well with the organisers. The list of signatories, in any case, reads like a who’s who of those writing about or discussing the Kashmir narrative.

Says journalist Parvaiz Bukhari:

The reasons the organisers have given while calling off the litfest are a dishonest interpretation of the open letter. No one called for a boycott. Instead of responding to the concerns raised in the letter the organisers chose a familiar easy way out by trying to demonise the signatories. They have added to my concerns rather than cleared doubts.

Researcher Shuja Malik raises more questions:

My thoughts might be considered that of a conspiracy theorist or am trying to read too much into the subject. But the way things work in Kashmir one is forced to look carefully into the Indian mechanisations. Few activities of Delhi Public School (the venue) make me to believe that it is not a completely apolitical educational institution and it activities in itself smell of a bias towards the state (read, India).

During the last summer uprising (of 2010), DPS was the first educational institution that responded to the government call of opening schools. Although that decision was good for educational reasons, but the over-enthusiasm that DPS displayed makes one a bit cynical. It ran empty buses for a long time.

The more important point is the visit of the US ambassador few months back as the chief guest at some function. But what did the chief guest speak about? That (Chief Minister) Omar Abdullah is the elected legitimate representative of Kashmiris, and he will talk to him only. Can such an educational institution be considered apolitical in its ideology? It might not have state patronage in material, but apparently it is in kind. The other curiosity how many private schools in India have the honor of having the US ambassador as the chief guest. Unless the administrators of this school are not well connected to a certain political ideology, hosting such guests is an improbable task.

So everything looks suspicious: the reasons, the list of guests and the choice of venues.

That it did, as did the opaque response that the organisers had blurted out on August 27. They had said

We wish to categorically state that the Harud literature festival is not government sponsored. It has been conceived with the intent of creating a platform for free and open debate, discussion and dialogue through contemporary narratives, literary fiction and poetry.

Journalist Najeeb Mubarki had responded to this very equivocal “clarification” at the time:

It is precisely the non-transparent nature of the festival, including the absence of a list of invitees, as well as the critical question as to the basis on which ‘selection’ of participants was made, that allowed these rumours of Mr Salman Rushdie to be aired. What was the source of the reports, then, which created these rumours? The letter is not concerned with this issue at all. But many of us do have the concern that these rumours on Mr Rushdie were created precisely so as to arouse reactions from sections in Kashmir, which reaction would then be used to present the bogey of ‘Islamic intolerance’ in Kashmir.

Mubarki had gone on to say:

Thus, it is a canard to suggest some people have ‘hijacked’ the ‘sincere effort’ to create a ‘transparent and inclusive’ platform. For, the issue is precisely the intent of the festival given its patently non-transparent nature. As for ‘inclusivity’ the key issue, again is on what basis were participants selected?

Ironically, the cancellation talked of the event being “hijacked” by detractors. Whether they were taken in by Mubarki’s choice of words is anybody’s guess, but his contention about the non-transparent nature of the festival holds. A visit to the festival website shows how obscure it indeed is.

Shuddabrata Sengupta of Sarai-CSDS brought in the Jaipur Literary Festival. He argued:

If no state agencies are determining the content of the festival, then why the reluctance to declare that this festival is being thought of as exactly like the Jaipur Literary Festival, without pre-fixes and qualifiers? Also, if unlike Jaipur, there are restrictions on entry at events, and common readers, without restriction are disallowed from freely accessing venues and writers, then too, this cannot qualify as a genuine literary festival.

Sengupta voiced concern about the backdrop:

Saying that the festival is NOT apolitical does not commit the festival organisers to any political stance, it merely means that they can envisage the free play of all sorts of content (political, apolitical, and widely divergent tendencies and styles). Ensuring that the event takes place in a space where ordinary people can feel safe and not be overshadowed by a militarised presence is also a reasonable expectation. No literary festival worth its name should have to take place under the shadow of guns.