An Autumn Before Its Time

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The literary festival in Kashmir might have been postponed, but it still leaves us with a pressing political question: is boycott better than engagement in a repressive regime, asks Urvashi Butalia

Illustration: Samia Singh

ONE OF THE good things to come out of the cancellation of the Harud Literary Festival, scheduled to be held in Srinagar later this month, is the extensive discussion that is now taking place, mostly on the Internet. Every day brings new posts and it is clear from the arguments and counter-arguments that the issue is far more complex than it seemed at the beginning.

I am a member of the advisory committee of the erstwhile festival. I am also a publisher, committed to foregrounding women’s voices, and the proud publisher of a recent title from Kashmir, Anjum Zamarud Habib’s account of her years in Tihar Jail as a POTA undertrial, Prisoner No 100 (translated by Sahba Husain from the original Urdu, Qaidi No 100). When the organisers asked me to be on the advisory committee, I was excited at the prospect of learning, of finding out more about Kashmiri writers, both within and outside the state.

Not being a Facebook user, I was unaware of the mounting concern among many writers and activists about the festival, its sources of funding, its location and, indeed, its purpose, given the political situation in Kashmir. These concerns became clear to me when I read the open letter — forwarded to me by a friend — and I immediately saw the point the letter was making.

The letter wasn’t (or isn’t) a call for boycott as has been represented in the media. Instead, it is a strong critique, an attempt to open a dialogue, and an attempt to urge the organisers to think of the issues it is raising, and even an assurance that as concerned people the letter writers would welcome a festival that they could feel confident was free of political influence and supported free speech.

This is in the best democratic tradition of debate and discussion. And in itself, it wasn’t the letter that led to the organisers calling off the festival. As someone who was involved in these discussions, I know that the letter was merely the catalyst, the decisive factor was the concern that if there was strong opposition — as some of the hate mails on the Internet showed — and if there were threats of violence, then the organisers could not, in all conscience, expose people to it.

To my mind this was the crux of the matter. But in the way that things get more and more confused, they did here too. The use of the word ‘apolitical’ — played up endlessly by the media — sparked off major outrage. And yet, perhaps because I was on the inside, I knew immediately what Namita Gokhale meant by it. I knew this too because as a publisher, who has long worn her politics on her sleeve, one of my preconditions for joining the advisory committee was that the festival would not shy away from the politics of Kashmir. An apolitical festival would not have invited Anjum Zamarud Habib or Basharat Peer (whether they would have come or not is another story).

I’m not even getting into the canard of a discussion about whether or not Salman Rushdie was invited. I think most of us know that to take such a step is to be deliberately provocative and I do not think the organisers had such an agenda.

Should the festival have happened in Kashmir or not? This question — which essentially poses a different set of questions about whether or not one should legitimise a repressive regime by carrying out ‘normal’ activities there, whether boycotts are more effective than engagement and so on — becomes more complex as time goes on.

An apolitical festival wouldn’t have invited author and former POTA undertrial Anjum Zamarud Habib or Basharat Peer (whether they would have come or not is another story)

A few months ago, I travelled to Israel for a literary festival — not at the invitation of the Israelis, I hasten to say. For the longest time, I was terribly conflicted about whether to go or not. Some of my Palestinian friends in Israel urged me to come, saying if you don’t see how things are, how will you know? Many of my Indian friends urged me to join the campaign for boycott and disinvestment. After much thought, I did, in the end, choose to go. While there, I saw at first hand the terrible repression, the deliberate denial of rights, the humiliation and violence inflicted on the Palestinians by the Israeli state. I managed one day to go into Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government. There I saw the ravages of long-term military occupation, the desperation of the people to remember the Naqba, or the catastrophe, the moment when Israel occupied Palestine. In Tel Aviv, I too saw the strong opposition to Israel’s policies by Israeli citizens, the relentless bravery with which many of them do battle against the State daily. I have never been more grateful to have gone anywhere, and yet I know that I will never do so again.

So, is engagement better or boycott? I still don’t have a clear answer to that question: I do know this, that for people who are working from the inside against repression, engagement helps in feeling less isolated. And for those who wish to put pressure from outside for the very same cause, boycott often is the lever to press. I know these are not the terms in which the discussion about Harud was articulated, but I am putting them down somewhat baldly just really to make a point.

Perhaps the best thing we can do as people engaged in the deeply political world of reading and writing, is to keep the discussion alive, possibly to showcase on the Internet the writings we would have celebrated in Kashmir had the festival taken place, perhaps to organise, if not a festival, then readings, discussions in and outside of Kashmir, with Kashmiri writers. These things do not require huge resources, but they do require some effort and commitment. Were we to do this, it would keep the spirit of discussion alive, and it would also open up the ground to talk about all of those issues the open letter and other critiques raise.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for us from the Northeast, where repression, the violation of human rights, the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the presence of the army and militant factions, are common occurrences. But where writing is vibrant, dynamic, political, outspoken and where literary festivals abound.

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