The most scintillating, thought provoking and interesting session of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s second day was the opening session held in a packed front lawn. The session was entitled ‘The Writer and the State’ and boasted a stellar cast including moderator Timothy Garton-Ash, an unparalleled authority on the Balkans and the emergence of Eastern Europe, author of nine books and a Fellow at St Anthony’s College, Oxford.

Garton-Ash had formidable speaker line-up and a difficult subject: what is the role of a writer in a totalitarian state even in a democratic state? Must a writer, because he is some kind of conscience-keeper necessarily be anti-corruption, anti-totalitarian, uphold the norms of decency? Where is the place for mischief, irony, humour, paradox when a writer faces the wrath and the power of the state?

The other panelists included Ariel Dorfman who fled Chile after the arrival of Pinochet in the aftermath of the killing of Salvatore Allende, then Chile’s President. Playwright, author of both fiction and non-fiction, Dorfman is one of the most respected “resistance” figures in the world of writing today.

Frank Dikotter lives in Hong Kong and writes about PRC Chinese (People’s Republic of China), and has written about Mao’s great famine that cost millions of lives, the Great Leap Forward with a degree of documentation that remains astonishing because he continues to live in HK.

Ian Buruma is a specialist in Chinese history and Japanese cinema and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.

The only woman on the panel was Selma Debbagh, a Palestinian writer living in London who has been identified by the magazine Granta as one of the most interesting young authors of this decade.

The only Indian on the panel but one who brilliantly defended his turf, at one point decrying (an Oxford trained Indian economist) he was probably referring to Montek Singh Ahluwalia or even Manmohan Singh, was Sudeep Chakravarti, the author of two critically acclaimed works of narrative non fiction – Red Sun: Travels in the Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Travels through a fractured land.

The debate started off with Dorfman who said Allende was a person he respected but that did not mean human rights abuses did not take place under his regime. “But then, you get a person like Pinochet and then we had 17 years of dictatorship, exile, oppression, torture. Under an oppressive regime such as Pinochet’s where the beatings are bad but the soul occupies a moral high ground. Once having fled the country how does the author deal with ambiguous “disloyal” truths in order to help the opposition; transitions to democracy such as the Arab Spring are amongst the most difficult situations for an author to understand given that the liberators can turn out to be fundamentalists or closet dictators. Also what happens when the state is a democracy but the state has an axe to grind against the writer? So there are different situations. So it’s a very complex situation, that relationship between writers and centers of power.”

Garton Ash said occasionally it was easier for a writer living outside the country than for one trapped inside. He asked Frank Dikotter how he was able to criticise Mao from outside China.

“I write on the PRC but I live in HK and I have a Dutch passport. The people I admire are historians who took extraordinary risks for writing on the Korean War. And those are in my view are the real heroes. There are others who don’t go that far and I understand why they have to do that in order to write. I can even vaguely understand certain would like to become part of the China Writers Association. I do occasionally have a plea for some of my friends from across HK.” He was of course referring to the recent Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan who according to certain critics failed to “adequately” to criticise the Chinese regime.

Ian Buruma said, “True state of freedom was to be able to choose how far one wished to be a resistant and that a writer should be free to decide whether he wished to oppose regimes, opt for politics or keep out of it altogether.” 

Selma Dabbagh, the only woman on the panel said she found it hard to go back and forth between the national narrative and to reconcile it with her own life in London. Although, she said the notion of Israeli occupation was newer out of her mind and the differences between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian factions made the situation far more complicated. “I have this mixed background in which my father was dispossessed in 1948 – the normal narrative and yet I have not lived through the occupation. People are very possessive about their narratives and for an outsider like me it is very difficult which one to choose.”

Some of the most telling remarks from Sudeep Chakravarti said that despite the fact that India was such a vibrant democracy, the lines were being blurred. That business and the stat were in a way getting morphed which was cutting out the ordinary citizen. “That is very, very dangerous and therefore we need all the freedom of speech we have and we need to use it well,” he concluded.