The New York edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival or JLF was meant to reflect its influence and reach beyond India’s borders. But instead, the festival held from 12-14 September in NYC came under fire for “normalising Hindutva”. At least two panellists withdrew from the event allegedly because they did not want to share the stage with BJP national spokesperson Shazia Ilmi.
Though the panellists themselves did not release statements, author Aatish Taseer claimed that they were afraid to do so publicly. It’s because “they have relationships with people in the festival,” he told the Middle Eastern Eye.
Festival organisers, however, denied these allegations and said that two panellists didn’t attend the event.
“Marie [Brenner] told us she was travelling,” said Sanjoy K. Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organised the festival. Brenner is an author, investigative journalist, and writer at large for Vanity Fair. The other panellist who withdrew was Amy Waldman, a former reporter with The New York Times and author of two books.
Ilmi was invited to take part in a panel discussion on 14 September and deliver the closing ceremony address.
“JLF is a platform for all kinds of voices. They have every right to cancel [their appearances],” Roy told The Print.
Both Taseer and Ilmi took to Twitter to expand on the controversy.
“Nor should we forget that this was a festival too craven to host @SalmanRushdie  in 2012 when there was a Congress govt. One can only imagine the alacrity with which they were prepared to do @narendramodi’s bidding,” Taseer tweeted Tuesday. Taseer’s Overseas Citizen of India card was revoked in 2019.
“Time to cancel cancel culture,” Ilmi tweeted in response. Eventually, Ilmi did speak, both during the panel discussion and the closing ceremony.
“The chorus of the protesters grew louder as they flashed placards against India! And against this very telling backdrop of hate, I spoke of the necessity to bury hatred within and without,” she later tweeted about her speech.
Also read: Mini JLFs sprouting across India. Lit fest boom in Nagpur, Ranchi, Kanpur, Indore, Kokrajhar
Sanjoy Roy attributed the uproar to cancel culture, saying it was an attempt to ‘cancel’ “a Dalit writer and a young Muslim woman speaking from the Right.” The Dalit writer in question is Guru Prakash, another BJP spokesperson invited to speak at the event. Guru Prakash and Shazia Ilmi were panellists in a discussion on ‘Intersections: Searching Equity’ moderated by journalist Prashant Jha.
Among others criticising JLF was writer-historian Audrey Truschke.
“I have spoken at the JLF twice in the past. Also in the past, JLF organisers have, privately, encouraged me to tone down my criticisms. Given those experiences + JLF’s BJP connections, I appreciate the reluctance of folks to speak for them,” Truschke stated on Twitter.
Roy disagreed with the ‘narrative’ that was being created, mentioning the panellists that did speak – which included Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, politician and diplomat Gopal Krishna Gandhi, and noted Indian-born Ugandan writer Mahmood Mamdani. Suchitra Vijayan, founder of the New York-based Polis Project, which conducts and publishes research on the iniquities of the Modi government, expressed disappointment with Mamdani.
“When India itself is now moving towards becoming an apartheid state, it’s intellectual dishonesty at its worse and deeply saddening for those of us who grew up with his work[sic],” she told Middle East Eye.
Also read: Arnab Goswami, stop attacking JLF. It’s not just a political platform for lost Lutyens souls
JLF is touted as being one of the world’s largest literary festivals, with JLF 2022, held in Jaipur, being its fifteenth edition. This is far from the first controversy it has entered into. Salman Rushdie’s almost-visit in 2012 and Ashish Nandy’s caste comment in 2013 are some of the major ones.
Roy maintains that “JLF invariably means protest.” He also stated that the actual number of protesters who showed up at the event in New York was only four. On the evening of 14 September, Shazia Ilmi gave her keynote speech.
The literary festival has now moved on to Houston, with a list of speakers that contains more members of the literary elite. In 2023, it will return to Jaipur.
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