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Over the weekend, writers Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad were to speak at the Tata Literature Festival in Mumbai, about Chomsky’s new book on the climate crisis and people’s resistance movements. Left-leaning activists were outraged that Chomsky would speak at a corporate-sponsored festival. They urged Chomsky and Prashad to boycott the festival.

The writers refused; instead, they said, they would read out a statement criticizing the Tata Group. For some odd reason, they made their plan public. The festival found out, and its director Anil Dharker cancelled the session. Dharker said the festival owes its success to the free expression of ideas, but it does not mean “a free expression of someone’s specific agenda".

Placing conditions around free expression always raises more questions. Once loosely-defined conditions place boundaries around free speech, commitment to the principle weakens. Some boundaries are wide, some are narrow, and some shift. To be sure, festival authorities should have the right to switch off mikes, such as when someone uses the platform to be gratuitously offensive to the vulnerable, or to incite violence against a beleaguered group.

Dharker said he admires Chomsky. He does; in the mid-1980s, when I was a graduate student in the US, I did a long interview with Chomsky about US foreign policy, and Dharker ran the piece in its entirety in Debonair, the magazine he edited then. So this isn’t about Dharker’s personal choices; he probably didn’t want grandstanding on his turf. Had I been in his position, I’d have let Chomsky and Prashad speak. But that’s perhaps why no sponsor would let me curate a festival, and why some festivals would not invite me to speak.

It is strange why Chomsky and Prashad felt they had to announce their plans. There is virtue in stealth. At the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in 2012, Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru and Jeet Thayil—the fab four—read out texts from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses as a spontaneous response to demonstrators who had succeeded in preventing Rushdie’s participation at the festival.

It is also puzzling that activists would want to oppose festivals over corporate sponsorship, when those festivals offer an opportunity to voice concerns that India’s loud networks may not permit. When the principal sponsor for the JLF was Zee (in India) and Vedanta (in the UK), activists lobbied invited writers to boycott it. The writers’ presence was presumably thought to give corporate sponsors the sort of prestige they didn’t deserve. When activists asked me to boycott the JLF in London (I did speak there), I asked if they were also calling for a boycott of other festivals—for example, in my hometown, Mumbai, the Times festival, whose network’s star anchors were known then as now for fact-free fulminations, or, indeed, the Tata festival, given the whiffs of controversy around the group then as well.

There is probably no company with an entirely admirable record. Companies have faced allegations of making gains off child labour, disregarding sexual harassment, polluting the environment, colluding with governments in ways that undermine liberties, acquiring land without consent, suppressing online speech, being protected by abusive security forces. One could take a principled stand and not take part in any festival that has any corporate sponsorship. I admire such consistency.

But running a festival isn’t cheap. If these festivals are ticketed with prices, reflecting the costs of travel, hospitality and venues, only the wealthy will be able to afford attending the festivals. The Hay Festival in the UK, where each event is ticketed, even a weekend visit, including travel and overnight stay and food, can set you back by £200 or more. Most Indian festivals are free.

If companies should not pick up the tab, then who should? The state, given its shoddy record of protecting freedoms? In essence, the boycott issue is a navel-gazing exercise about who is purer—the writer, the activist who wants to make a point, or the company that “permits" debate.

What about readers and listeners? Aren’t literature festivals about them? Keep companies out, and festivals become expensive; boycott festivals, and audiences lose again. Writers are a society’s conscience-keepers. They must have the freedom to say what they wish. In 2012, Girish Karnad went off-script on stage at the Tata festival and criticized the festival’s honouring of Vidiadhar Naipaul. Karnad had a point: in honouring Naipaul, we honour his ideas, and in so doing, we concur with his extreme viewpoint, even if it is expressed elegantly. Karnad was off-topic; what he said may have seemed driven by an agenda. But it was necessary to say it.

Writers have a duty to speak out. They should have platforms to say what they wish, including what others won’t or can’t say; what others want to or need to hear. Truth achieves resonance when it is spoken to those who wield power, not when it is spoken only in narrow alleys, where the only ones listening are those who agree. Boycotting the Tata festival would have been wrong. But by not letting Chomsky and Prashad speak, the festival may have only increased the public scrutiny of its sponsors.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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