Almost two months after the HarudLit Fest

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was announced to be held in Srinagar, 14 authors, journalists, academics and filmmakers posted an ‘open letter’ on kafila.org. The brief response forced many to seek answers to some questions and concerns raised there. Then came a formal announcement of the postponement of the event. Here are these documents reproduced in chronological order that flew in the cyberspace.

THE OPEN LETTER
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.

In Kashmir, with its history of intense repression and brutality, markedly so in the last two decades, a context where deaths in custody, torture, rape, disappearances, curbs and assaults on the press and human rights activists are rife, where thousands of teenagers and even pre-teens have recently been arrested, slapped with FIRs and draconian laws, where infamous laws like the PSA and AFSPA are fully operational, indeed, are the operative principles, where dissent and the expression of political realities is sought to be curbed by brute force, holding such a festival raises those core issues about basic ideals and freedoms.

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. Indeed, that a political reality is denied, even criminalised, in the state. The argument about freedom to speak and listen, thus, is disingenuous precisely because no such freedoms exist in Kashmir. Even the proposed venues, apart from being well-known for their linkages with the repressive state, highlight that fact.

What is the efficacy of having a part of the event in Kashmir University, when that most basic of rights, that of forming a student union, is denied to the students? Can there be discussions on ‘militarisation’ and ‘Azadi’, core issues in Kashmir, just as there have been discussions in the Jaipur festival on Kashmir and Maoism? Even if such discussions were to be held, would that not be in a bubble, a miasma of freedom, while even the right to life and dignity is being violated outside on the streets?

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.

ORGANIZER’S RESPONSE
In response to the open letter expressing a set of concerns about the forthcoming Harud Literature Festival, the festival organisers have responded:
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.

The festival seeks to showcase writing in Urdu, Kashmiri, Dogri and English from the region and other Indian writers. We seek support for the spirit of the festival which is plural, inclusive and supports freedom of speech and expression.

MORE QUESTIONS BY PARVAIZ BUKHARI
I am happy to see Harud respond, but I am afraid it is a simplistic response and does not answer many questions like:

1. Can the funding sources (All) for the festival be made public?

2. Who has been invited and who left out, both from Kashmir and outside?

3. How was the choice for the two venues made?

4. Who are the festival partners in Kashmir?

5. Will the event be open to general public?

6. If so, will the festival organisers guarantee that those common people who might speak at the event would not be hounded and harassed by any security agency, or indexed for any purposes like denial of travel documents etc?

7. Will any communication between the festival organisers and any government agency be made public? (Permissions must have been sought)

8. Has participation of any government official (even as guests) been sought?
All these questions and many more are relevant because the festival is being held in one of the most contentious and militarised spaces.

THE CANCELLATION
It is with great sadness that we announce the postponement of the Harud Literary Festival. 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.

If those opposing the festival truly believed in free speech, they would have allowed this forum to go ahead and would come and express their dissent at the festival. They could have put to test their claims that the festival would not allow for free speech and expression.

Expression through the arts are at risk across the world and more so in India. Literature is one way to transcend these barriers and provide a platform for inclusive ideas. This unfortunately will be the biggest loss, not just for Srinagar, but for all artists who believe in the right to express themselves.

We wish to reiterate the following:
1. The festival had invited approx 30 authors from Jammu and Kashmir and 20 from other parts of India. The festival had neither invited nor was planning to invite Salman Rushdie.

2. The festival program included sessions on ‘The Silenced Voice: Creativity and Dissent’, ‘Jail Diaries’, ‘Gulistan: The Forgotten Environment’ , ‘Lol’ha’rov: Echoes of the Valley’ , ‘Harud: Songs of the Season’ , ‘Chronicles of Exile’ , apart from other sessions on popular fiction, poetry, theatre etc.

3. We have received some funding support from corporate sources but we have received no funding from any government source..

4. The festival was to be hosted at the Delhi Public School, which earlier this summer hosted a literature festival for children that invited authors to come in from other parts of India.

With many authors voicing their concerns about possible violence during the festival due to the heightened nature of the debate, and a call for protest at the venues, we neither have the desire to be responsible for yet more unrest in the valley nor to propagate mindless violence in the name of free speech. We are therefore left with little alternative but to cancel the festival for now.

We hope that when calmer sense prevails, and we are confidently able to provide a sense of security to our speakers and guests, and writers from Kashmir feel the need for a platform to express themselves, we will reenergize the festival. Till then it is a sad day for us, and a victory for a vocal minority who feel that they alone are the doorkeepers to peoples’ minds and hearts.

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About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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