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.
(Should you want to add your name to it in support of the stance vis a vis Harud, please do so by writing your full name and profession in the comments section of this post at text link of Kafila below. The names of the signatories will be updated on the post itself.)
The letter has been signed by more than two hundred persons already including Basharat Peer, Mirza Waheed, Sanjay Kak, Najeeb Mubarki, Gautam Navlakha, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Nivedita Menon, Beena Sarwar, Suvir Kaul, Mridu Rai, and Angana Chaterji.