A writer is not a jukebox

Basharat Peer.   | Photo Credit: S_GOPAKUMAR

A few days back, the Harud Literary Festival, which was due to take place in Srinagar from September 21 to 24, was cancelled amid great controversy. The event was to be held on the campus of Delhi Public School located outside Srinagar, next to the biggest military camp in Kashmir, the Badami Bagh cantonment. Vijay Dhar, who owns the school, was the main sponsor of the Harud festival. A businessman with strong Congress Party connections, he was an adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. Recently, Mr. Dhar was cheerleading the Indian Army's “normalcy drive” in Kashmir by hosting an army-sponsored and organised cricket tournament, the Kashmir Premier League, on the grounds of his school.

Before the Harud was talked about in the press, I had conveyed my apprehensions to the organisers — the novelist and festival producer Namita Gokhale and her partners, Teamwork Productions headed by Sanjoy Roy and Sheuli Sethi — and suggested holding the festival independently, without any political connections. They chose otherwise. It thus became impossible for me, as an independent writer, to be part of such an event. If I had decided to attend the festival, given the obvious political connections of Harud's lead sponsor, then tomorrow I would not be able to say no to an event funded by people connected to other political establishments and ideologies. This was the same reason I stayed away, despite several invitations, from the conferences organised by Ghulam Nabi Fai, the Kashmiri-American lobbyist who turned out to be on the payroll of Pakistan's Inter Services Agency.

The Harud organisers also included a day of seminars and talks at Kashmir University in the festival, and found another sponsor: Jyotsna Singh, the grand-daughter of the repressive pre-1947 ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh.

Ms Singh's wealth is her inheritance and the forced labour of my ancestors did contribute a bit to the wealth of the Kashmir's erstwhile ruling dynasty. This small piece of historical knowledge seemed to have been ignored by the organisers, but I do remember that my ancestors, who worked as landless tillers as the Maharaja owned all the land, would hide some grains of rice in pullehores, shoes made of hay stalks, and empty them at home where those grains of rice and some vegetables would contribute to keeping alive starving families. I would desecrate the memory of all those Kashmiris who were forced to live on half-empty stomachs — who toiled without reward for their blood and sweat, and those countless, nameless ones who died of exhaustion after long days of forced labour — by joining an event sponsored with the wealth accumulated from such exploitation.

In essence, by choosing the kind of sponsors they have, the organisers of the Harud festival forced me and fellow writer, Waheed Mirza, author of the novel, The Collaborator, to stay away. Unfortunately, the mainstream media was not interested in our objections. The Times of India described Harud as making Kashmir “turn a leaf”, as if the festival was bringing civilization to the State. The Hindu's Srinagar correspondent, Shujaat Bukhari, asserted that “the objections raised by New York-based author of Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer, and London-based Mirza Waheed ... have cast a shadow over the festival being organised in response to the Kashmiri people's desire for such an event.” Waheed and I chose, as individual writers, not to participate, but I wonder on what basis Mr. Bukhari made the assertion that the festival was being “organised in response to the Kashmiri people's desire for such an event.” Had India and Pakistan agreed to a U.N.-supervised referendum over the Harud literary festival, had the people of Kashmir voted overwhelmingly in favour of the festival? Writers are not jukeboxes. If a group of individuals have the freedom to organise an event and invite a writer, a writer has the freedom to choose to accept or reject an invitation.

We did write an open letter raising political questions, along with several other journalists, academics, and writers, and it was posted on the blog,, giving others the option to sign it if they wished. After describing the situation in the State, our letter said: “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 added that 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.”

A few days later, the Harud organisers called off the festival citing threats of violence and a movement to boycott the festival. “A few people who began the movement to boycott the festival have no qualms in [sic] speaking on and about Kashmir across international forums, but have refused to allow other voices, including writers, poets and theatre people from the Valley and across India to enjoy the right to express themselves at the Harud festival,” the statement announcing the cancellation alleged.

This statement essentially implies that Mirza Waheed and I, who have spoken and written across the world about Kashmir, are censors throttling other writers, poets, and theatre people from expressing themselves. This is completely untrue. We did not attempt to persuade anyone who wanted to attend Harud from not attending. We didn't call for a boycott of the festival. Our Open Letter, in fact ended on the following note: “This letter is an attempt to state our position and to urge the festival participants to ponder some of these issues and concerns.” All we did was to make and state our decision to stay away. The decision to cancel the festival was not ours, but that of the organisers.

It has also been said that our opposition to the festival has denied young Kashmiris a chance to interact with several visiting authors. Let this be clear: Young Kashmiris don't depend on a glance or a hasty chat with a visiting author to understand the mechanics of writing. An intense conversation about the craft and politics of writing has been going on, away from the glare of the press and frenzy of social media, in many rooms in Kashmir. The journalist Muzamil Jaleel has been running a writers' workshop every Sunday from his living room for several years now, where scores of young Kashmiri boys and girls discuss their writing and read the best and the brightest of fiction and non-fiction writers. It is a room I have visited on several Sundays to talk to Muzamil's students.

In my parents' house, in coffee shops in Srinagar, in online chats and emails, that process continues. When I was a 21-year-old struggling to learn to write, a writer friend told me what to read and how to read. Many of us who signed the open letter critiquing the Harud festival have been passing on the torch, editing short stories, reading personal essays, bringing graphic novels and tomes of fiction and non-fiction for the boys and girls who are growing up to tell the story of Kashmir and the stories of places and ideas beyond Kashmir. It is in those quiet and committed engagements spanning years that Kashmir's writers are being made, not by pitching a few shamiyanas.

They are not desperate for an autograph; they are reading, thinking, writing in the solitude of their rooms. They won't be seeking crumbs at a table, they won't mortgage their souls to government cultural academies and Doordarshan Kashmir, they won't go begging at the doors of DAVP offices in Delhi. The strength of their work will tear open the gates.

(Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night .)

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 2:16:28 PM |

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