January 26, 2021
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Harud Lit Fest

Curfewed Letters

Is the antidote to 'silence' more silence, or greater discussion and louder noise? As Kashmir's first ever literature festival remains still-born, there are more questions than answers

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Curfewed Letters

"Kum se kum baat toh ho sakti thi" says Kashmiri writer Naseem Shafaie wistfully when I pose her the questions Mirza Waheed and Basharat Peer, along with several others, raised recently to argue against the idea of a Literature Festival in Kashmir.

Waheed and Peer have been the most visible voices of a movement that led to the cancellation of the proposed Harud Literature Festival, which was to be held in Srinagar later this month. Their argument, as articulated in an "Open Letter", is that to host a literary festival in a place like Kashmir, where there is an atmosphere of repression and free speech is curfewed, is a "travesty". Moreover, they feel, such a festival can be used to "falsely assert the existence of basic freedoms, even as they are denied to larger sections of the population." The original letter had 14 signatories, but support quickly grew and by the time news of cancellation came, more than 200 people, including scholar Mridu Rai, journalist Gautam Navlakha and filmmaker Sanjay Kak, had signed it.

The final cancellation came in the wake of a Facebook group that called for boycott of the festival — a few of its 5000 odd members even hinting at violent consequences — because of a rumour suggesting Salman Rushdie was invited (he never was, say organizers). And while none of the original signatories to the Open Letter were members of this group (in fact, the original letter never specifically calls for a boycott), the final decision of the organizers had much to do with the dissent that had built up since the first news about the festival came out.

Much of the brouhaha has been concentrated on the use of the word "apolitical" by the festival advisor, author Namita Gokhale, to describe the event. In a Guardian article that reported on the controversy, Waheed had wondered "So what would I do if I was there? What would I read? Every page I have written is political"

When I ask Gokhale (who is just back from the Edinburgh Book Festival where she co-chaired sessions with Waheed) about this, she is irritated. "I have already clarified this many times, you can google it" she says, adding "all I meant was that the stance of the organizers is 'apolitical'"

Perhaps Gokhale's clarification hasn't received the extent of attention that the opinions of her detractors have, because besides being the centrepiece of their argument it continues to bother people at large. Wasim Khalid, a Srinagar based journalist says: "Literature is a reflection of life. But our life is full of pain, full of politics, full of suffering. We have only seen grenades, we have only seen crackdowns, we have only seen killings and militants…our memories are filled with that…politics is part of our life…how can you ignore it? If you talk politics, you will have to talk of occupation, if you talk about occupation you will have to talk of India, if you talk of India you have to talk about human rights violation…human rights violation, occupation won't look good for India"

As far as Gokhale (or Shafaie) is concerned, they did not have any problems with this at all. In fact, they expected authors like Basharat Peer, Mirza Waheed and Anjum Zamarud Habib (author of recently published Prisoner No. 100) to narrate the valley's pain and suffering in sessions titled "The Silenced Voice: Creativity and Dissent" and "Jail Diaries" among others. That these popular authors instead chose to "abdicate" this responsibility and discouraged others from attending has disappointed them. Sanjoy Roy, producer of the event, insists that the idea was to invite speakers "from across the divide", including people such as journalist Iftikhar Gilani, son-in-law of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has written about his days in Tihar jail.

But writers, researchers and journalists who supported the line of reasoning forwarded by Peer, Waheed & Co. have questioned a number of 'details'. Like, the choice of venue. They argue that Kashmir University, which had been identified as one of the official venues of the festival, is a site of ongoing suppression of freedoms (students can't form a student union for example, and there is permanent presence of military on campus) and therefore antithetical to the spirit in which such a literary festival should be held.

To this Gokhale has an intellectual response — "there is no ideal space in the whole world. There are no neutral spaces" — but Shafaie offers a more simple suggestion. "So, why don't they come as advisors and suggest a different venue? Why stay away?" she asks.

Why stay away, indeed. The general response to this has been that the 'protesters' fear that a well attended literature festival will become a mere tokenism that the state can appropriate as a symbol of normalcy, proof that "all is well", when clearly it isn't. Besides, the recent discovery of over 2000 unidentified bodies in mass graves aside, fake encounters and attacks on journalists continue to be routinely under-reported in mainstream India media.

A major criticism of this approach has been that the antidote to 'silence' is not more silence, but greater discussion and louder noise. A second dissatisfaction, more mumbled than shouted out loud, is that the same authors who abstained from Harud Lit Fest think nothing of appearing at Jaipur, at Edinburgh, and other big name festivals to talk about the same issues. There is resentment that while they can access international platforms to share their work, they are snatching away an opportunity for local writers writing in Kashmiri, Dogri and Urdu.

"I have read Mirza's book. Has he read mine?" asks Shafaie, who says that she has had several writers from the valley, as well as from Jammu, call her to express their disappointment at the cancellation.

I ask Gokhale how she sees this confrontation shaping the future. "The only confrontation is between good writing and bad writing," she insists. "Whether this festival happens or not, whether I remain associated with it or not, good writing will continue to happen, good books will continue to be published. But I believe there is a greater need for dialogue within the literary community. If Basharat and Mirza put together a festival, I will support it."

Whether or not Peer and Waheed will take on this onerous task remains to be seen. For now, Kashmir will have to find another way to pour its heart out.

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