In the last decade or so, literary festivals have caught the imagination of writers and readers alike in South Asia. There are events in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal that are now well-attended and even command a certain snob value. So, another such event, this time in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)—the privately organized Harud-The Autumn Literature Festival that was to be held in Srinagar this month—was hardly the stuff of headlines.
Yet, on Monday, the organizers announced its postponement amid great controversy in India and abroad. In the words of the organizers, the festival had been “hijacked by those who hold extreme views in the name of free speech”.
At a proximate level, the problem lies with a class of educated Kashmiris who look at the situation in a binary “either-or” situation. Either one is with the idea that holding such a festival is wrong, in which case you have all the right credentials on your side—courage, literary merit and creativity to name a few.
If one says that such festivals can potentially encourage local talent, then you are on the wrong side.
The organizers of the festival found themselves on the wrong side. The mere use of the expression “apolitical” to describe the event was torn out of context and interpreted as somehow imposing curbs on freedom of expression at the event, real or implied. The Harud Festival authorities later clarified there were to be sessions such as “The Silenced Voice: Creativity and Dissent”, “Jail Diaries”, “Gulistan: The Forgotten Environment” among others. This is hardly the stuff that makes for squelching dissent and thought control.
Beyond the immediate context, there are bigger, more diffuse, but nonetheless real forces at work. There is a wider political economy of free speech and creative expression in J&K. For one, stories of human rights abuses make for good copy. Then, a literature has developed around the themes of suppression, violence and absence of freedom in the state. This kind of writing has created an impression of J&K as being some sort of hell-hole where killings are rampant and the rule of law non-existent. A narrative has been woven around these themes. Any change in the ground situation towards a semblance of normalcy threatens to upset all this. That is at the heart of the problem faced by the Harud Festival.
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