It is sad that a literature festival that was to be held in Srinagar later this month has been indefinitely postponed. What is even sadder is that while announcing its postponement on HarudLitFest.org, the organisers of the Harud Literature Festival (the same team that puts up the acclaimed Jaipur Literature Festival) have sought to blame those who signed an "open letter" expressing a set of concerns about the festival. The statement reads, "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."
Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night
As one of the over two hundred signatories of the open letter posted on Kafila.org, I am dismayed at the deliberate and disingenuous misrepresentation of the open letter as a "movement to boycott". What does such deliberate misrepresentation of dissent by the organisers of a literature festival speak about them, their honesty and intent?
Two news reports appeared on 28 July 2011. One, by Agence France-Presse, quoted organiser Namita Gokhale as saying, "it will be an apolitical dialogue concerning literature". The other report, by Randeep Singh Nandal in The Times of India, datelined Srinagar, did not quote anyone, and claimed: "There is speculation that Salman Rushdie might drop by..."
The term "apolitical" offended Kashmiris who were seen objecting to it widely on Facebook and Twitter. Some of these were also aghast with the idea of Salman Rushdie, who they consider as being against their religion, sitting on a stage in Srinagar. Even though some of those named in these and subsequent news reports had told the festival organisers, even before the news was in the papers, that they would not be able to attend, their names were falsely put out in the media. They were thus forced to publicly state they would not attend a lit-fest termed "apolitical".
Kashmir is a place where people live under the shadow of the gun, their political grievances against the Indian state silenced with draconian laws, criminalisation of dissent and heavy militarisation. You can get two years in jail without charge for a Facebook status update, a pamphlet, a mass gathering, a call for strike. Around the time the Harud controversy was gaining momentum, the Jammu and Kashmir Police beat up over several hours a photojournalist, allegedly because they didn't like his work on the AlJazeera website.
Now, a group of people from the Indian capital decide to go to the place described above, to hold a literary festival, and announce that the festival would be "apolitical". Were Kashmiri writers and journalists, including some acclaimed ones, wrong in feeling offended?
On 12 August 2011, Namita Gokhale was quoted as saying in the UK Guardian, "There was perhaps some misinterpretation of my use of the word 'apolitical'." She chose not to withdraw the word. If by apolitical she meant non-partisan, the choice of venues, Delhi Public School's Srinagar franchise and the Kashmir University, was not seen as non-partisan in Srinagar. If your intent is to be neutral in a conflict zone, surely, you must attempt to be seen to be neutral?
The open letter, signed initially by fourteen people including me, was published on 25 August. It said, "Our concerns are also heightened by reports that the festival is sought to be denoted as being an 'apolitical' event, that, yet, people will be free to speak what they want and that no one has the right to deny Kashmiris a chance to listen to writers. Beyond the absurdity of asserting that art and literature has nothing to do with politics, our issue is precisely that people are not allowed to speak their minds in Kashmir." The open letter did not use the word boycott, did not urge anyone to not attend it, did not ask for it to be cancelled. It did say, "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."
Two days later, their response on Kafila.org said, "We wish to categorically state that the Harud literature festival is not government sponsored." It did not withdraw the word 'apolitical'. An expanded version of this 27 July release, sent to the media, mentioned false rumours spread by a Facebook group about Rushdie coming to attend. Why did it put the blame of the Rushdie rumour on Kashmiris and not on The Times of India, and on themselves for choosing to not deny the rumour for a whole month?
Then, suddenly, on 29 August they announced indefinite postponement of the festival, in a dishonest release that blamed the signatories of the open letter for being against free speech! It also cited security threats emanating from that Facebook page with nearly 5,000 ordinary Kashmiris supporting the boycott call on account of Rushdie's rumoured attendance.
Given that so many Kashmiris have expressed reservations about the festival's intent, including many Kashmiri writers and journalists, even young, aspiring, as yet-unpublished ones, it is surprising that we are hearing patronising comments about how Kashmiris have been 'denied an opportunity'. High time Kashmiris started their own lit-fest, which they have tried before but were not granted permission by the state government. They should do it in Delhi or Jaipur, giving aspiring Indian writers an opportunity to learn what it means to be political.
Shivam Vij is a writer and journalist based in New Delhi. He is part of the South Asian team blog, Kafila.org