The custodians of ‘Truth' in Kashmir should know that a gathering of writers is capable of asking complex questions about the abnormal reality in the State.
The news of the ‘postponement' of Harud, a literary festival scheduled to be held in Kashmir in September, should be read with concern by those who believe in, and fight for, the right to express themselves freely. How the self-righteousness of some fighters for democracy actually forecloses any possibility of democracy can be seen from this incident.
In a statement last week, the organisers of Harud explained that they were forced to put off their festival as there was a concerted campaign by some people on the Internet, on Facebook and some other sites attacking the festival. According to these critics, “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.”
The organisers of Harud had dared to call the event apolitical, which did not go down well with the critics of the event. They demanded that the description be withdrawn. One of the signatories went to the extent of demanding an apology from the organisers for having committed the cardinal sin of suggesting that there could be something apolitical in Kashmir. They asked them to come clean on their source of funding and their affiliations. When they clarified that the event was not sponsored by the Indian state and was privately funded and aimed to create a platform for free and open debate, discussion and dialogue through contemporary narratives, literary fiction and poetry, it was not found acceptable and the campaign persisted.
Meanwhile a hint was dropped by anonymous activists on Facebook about the possibility of Salman Rushdie participating in the festival. Eventually, the campaign against the festival reached a level where the authors started feeling insecure and the organisers did not feel confident that the event could be held peacefully.
What is even more disturbing is that the campaigners against Harud are now blaming the organisers themselves for shutting down the event to evade questioning. They claim that their campaign was only an interrogation regarding the intent of the organisers, and that their decision to postpone it shows there was something fishy about the whole thing. The refusal of the organisers to withdraw the term ‘apolitical' fuelled their suspicion that it was designed to gloss over the violent reality of Kashmir.
The organisers were also castigated for choosing Kashmir University and Delhi Public School as the venues. In the opinion of the critics, since K.U. does not have basic democratic structures like a student union, it stands disqualified as a space where ideas would flow freely. Even if that were possible, the protesters say it would be in “a bubble, a miasma of freedom, while the life and dignity of ordinary citizens is being violated out in the streets”.
Where does it leave the festival then? First you call it a travesty, then an Indian state sponsored event without any possibility of free debate and finally the argument is closed by saying that even if it is free and diverse, it stands illegitimate and therefore undesirable since there is killing taking place outside.
Whether we are allowed to call a part of our being ‘apolitical' or not could be a matter of academic or philosophical discussion. To settle this question in statements is not only puzzling but worrying. To force somebody to concede that there cannot be anything apolitical in a situation like Kashmir is utterly violent. Also to indicate that no activity should be allowed which gives an impression of normalcy is something which goes against the principles of life. We reside in normal and abnormal spheres simultaneously. Is laughter disallowed in Lebanon or Gaza or Kashmir? Do we not love in the times of death and destruction? But literature, we all know is about all this and much more. A gathering of persons dealing in word and language is aware of its responsibility of asking complex questions about life and being, an awareness which seems to escape the custodians and warriors of ‘Truth'.
Many a times, efforts to restore ordinariness to a situation like Kashmir can have far wider and critical consequences than slogan shouting and processions. Literature is part of this ordinary.
I know that simple initiatives for creating possibilities of livelihood for Kashmiri women can invite reprisal and wrath from some quarters. I also have narratives from persons like Shabnam Hashmi and her colleagues, who, before starting some projects for women and youth in Kashmir, went to an expert who very solemnly told them that the best thing to do for Kashmir is to do nothing! I know of numerous stories where people like them received threats from militant groups and other experts when they held drama-film festivals and other programmes and had to sometimes suspend their activities. There are still many of them who continue with their activities, thereby putting their lives at risk, but since they are doing things which can give an impression of normalcy in the everyday life of Kashmir, they can also be dubbed as Indian agents.
What we are witnessing is the emergence of self-selected ‘interpretative communities' around specific causes, who, with the power of their cultural capital, disallow any other version to be heard. We have very recently witnessed, in the Anna Hazare movement, the victory of one variety of this community, which claimed that it was the sole source of legitimacy. A similar victory has now been scored by yet another set of interpreters of the Truth in Kashmir.
Can one say that their long intellectual investment in the pain of Kashmiris has led them to a state where they do not want its dividends to be shared? Or, that if students and youth and other Kashmiris flock to an event like this, their seamless narrative of pain would be ruptured?
Troubled, I travel to Mahmoud Darwish, a chronicler of pain and suffering and life of his people and hear him whisper, “the critics kill me sometimes: / they want a particular poem / a particular metaphor / and if I stray up a side road / they say: ‘He has betrayed the road'.... and if I look up at the sky to see / the unseen / they say poetry has strayed far from its objectives.”
Not allowing anyone to stray up a side road is what the critics of Harud are doing by denying it the right to identify itself as apolitical. They are, in my poet's words, the real killers.
(Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.)