After Harud, now Sounth (spring) literature festival in Kashmir

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Three years after Harud (autumn) Literary festival was called off, amid scathing criticism by Kashmiri writers and civil society activists, for insisting on being controversially “apolitical” in a highly militarized conflict zone, this time J-K Government itself has stepped in to collaborate with an NGO to organize a literary festival- Sounth (spring). As state owned Doordarshan and Radio Kashmir put together the literary festival and with J-K Governor inaugurating the event, the festival looks more like an exercise meant to counter the new writing and art emerging out of the valley.

“The literature festival will focus on the changing life and times of Jammu and Kashmir as reflected in art, literature, media, cinema and other creative works,” the invitation to the speakers invited for the festival reads.

While a people’s literature of resistance is slowly emerging out of a repressive political atmosphere in Kashmir that squeezes every space of protest including the social media, the state patronage to a literary festival centered around ‘change’ reflected in writing, art, cinema and media seems ironic.

The three-day literature festival, “Sonth – The Jammu and Kashmir Literature Festival 2015” is scheduled to start on February 13 in Srinagar city. The festival is being organized by Lehar, an NGO that has recently organized a seminar on “aspirations and anxieties of Kashmiri youth,” in collaboration with the State’s Tourism department, Academy for Art, Culture and Languages, Doordarshan Kendra (Srinagar) and All India Radio (Srinagar).

Director of Lehar, Rajni Shaleen Chopra told ‘The Kashmir Walla’ that several Kashmiri civil society members and writers are part of the organizing committee of the festival. “Respected people like Aziz Hajini, Bashir Arif, Bashar Assad and Zafar Manhas are all part of the organizing committee. I am also a member. The event is aimed to send out a message to the whole country. We are in process of finalizing the nature of the three sessions that will constitute the festival,” she says.

The Sounth literary festival is going to be held at the high security Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC) on Dal banks in Srinagar.

An email sent to one author said, “leading intellectuals and opinion-makers of the country are participating in the fest, along with authors, writers, film-makers, actors and other artistes”.

Chopra also confirmed that JK Governor is going to inaugurate the festival and several government departments are helping to make it happen. “Writers like Basharat Peer, Rahul Pandita and Mirza Waheed have also been invited. We are planning to invite Shekhar Gupta, Vishal Bhardwaj, Irffan Khan and many others,” she says.

When asked about the Harud literary festival that couldn’t take off after being mired in controversy, Chopra says, “I don’t know what happened to Harud festival. I hope Sounth becomes a success”. She says that the planned festival was named Sounth “after due considerations with the members in the organizing committee, who are all Kashmiris and are respected people.”

In 2011, the organizers of Jaipur Literary Festival in collaboration with Delhi Public School in Srinagar had planned Harud (autumn) Literary Festival. Several Kashmiri writers including Basharat Peer and Mirza Waheed had opted not to attend the festival.

While calling off Harud, its organizers had said that the festival was ‘born out of the best intentions to platform work of emerging and established writers in Kashmir, the festival has been hijacked by those who hold extreme views in the name of free speech’.

In an open letter, a group of writers and civil society activists, several of them from Kashmir, explained as to why they oppose the conduct of the Harud Literary Festival in Srinagar. “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. …….such events are sometimes used to falsely assert the existence of basic freedoms, even as they are denied to larger sections of the population,’’ the letter said.

Questioning the festival to be an “apolitical” event, the open letter said “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”.

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