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Panellists withdraw from New York literature festival over BJP presence

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is normalising Hindutva in the US, activists and writers tell MEE
A newspaper vendor walks past an advertisement hoarding outside the venue of the annual Literature Festival in Jaipur on 22 January 2012 (Reuters)
By in
New York City

The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is normalising Hindutva in the United States, activists and writers have told Middle East Eye, following revelations that a leader from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be participating at this year’s JLF events in New York City.

As of Tuesday morning, at least three panellists, including authors Marie Brenner and Amy Waldman, had reportedly withdrawn from the JLF following calls from activists and writers to boycott the event over the presence of Shazia Ilmi, a national spokesperson for the BJP.

The JLF is the world's largest free literature festival and holds events outside of India such as the one in New York from 12-14 September.

Brenner and Waldman have not replied to MEE’s request for comment, while festival organisers have refused to divulge if panellists had withdrawn. However, whereas Brenner and Waldman are still listed as speakers on the festival website, as of Tuesday they were no longer on the programme. 

Teamwork Arts, the producer of JLF New York,  wouldn't reveal to MEE whether anyone had pulled out, but they said: "JLF celebrates the written word and ideas and is representative of diverse views and thoughts."

British-Indian author Aatish Taseer told MEE that he knew at least three people had pulled out of the festival. Taseer said the writers had decided not to make public statements because “they have relationships with people in the festival".

”They're afraid to make a political statement,” Taseer said.

Taseer, whose overseas citizenship of India was revoked in 2019 - shortly after he published an article criticising Indian PM Narendra Modi - said that many panellists were duped into believing they were attending a festival with “respectable, intellectual people with bodies of work behind them".

He said that South Asian activists and writers more knowledgeable about the current political climate in India had to be mobilised to explain to participants that “these are full-on right-wing ideologues, including card-holding members of the BJP".

“These people who are appearing from the New York side who are liberals would never be caught dead with these [BJP] people,” he said. “So it's a really, really insidious and sly thing that the JLF leaders have done."

'Cancel culture'

The BJP's Ilmi, a Muslim leader within the BJP, told MEE that she wasn't aware that speakers had pulled out due to her presence. Ilmi is scheduled to participate in a panel on Wednesday afternoon and deliver the keynote at the closing ceremony late that evening.

"If you say that these people have dropped out because of my presence, that remains entirely their choice,” Ilmi said.

“And if they are against freedom of expression, of others, or dissenting voices, a voice that is different from theirs [then] they must take a deep, hard look at themselves and examine the hatred and the bias that they have within themselves towards those who represent a different point of view.

'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 [Mamdani's] work'

Suchitra Vijayan, director of the Polis Project

“And this entire cancel culture and self-cancel culture that they are bringing to the table represents and smacks of intolerance of the worst kind."

Likewise, noted Ugandan writer and academic Mahmood Mamdani, also scheduled to take part in a session on Wednesday evening, told activists and MEE that he would not be withdrawing from the event.

“I have never before considered withdrawing from an event because I objected, however strongly, to the views of a participant - so long as the event itself was not being hijacked by this person or their organisation, thus closing it to opposing or divergent views,” he said.

“My intent is not to normalise the views of those with whom I disagree strongly. My intent is to open up debate, not to close it," added Mamdani, who will be speaking at one of the main sessions at the festival exploring the nature of the nation-state and the path to a reimagined, decolonised future.

But Suchitra Vijayan, director of the Polis Project in NYC, expressed disappointment with Mamdani's response.

"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,” Vijayan told MEE.

'Climate of genocide'

According to Taseer, Mamdani has a lot to answer for because he takes a very strident position when it comes to Israel. 

“You have a party spokesperson that is systematically creating a climate of genocide in a country where the demographics are even more explosive, even more volatile,” he said. “If Mamdani believes what he believes about Israel, he should have the gumption to take the same position when it comes to India.”

JLF is touted as one of the most prestigious literature festivals on the planet, but it has also been criticised for working closely with corporate sponsors as well as its willingness to include the Hindu right-wing at the festival.

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In 2020, activists protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the legislation that helps created tiered citizenship in India based on faith, alleged that they were assaulted by private security hired by the festival. 

Activists with the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (Sasi) and others said they would be holding a rally on Wednesday outside the festival in the city. 

Activists and Indian Muslims in particular say that Hindu nationalist rhetoric has become bolder in the US over the past few years, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump.  

Last month's events in Edison, in neighbouring New Jersey, in which organisers of an Indian Independence Day parade included a bulldozer at the rally, a symbol synonymous with anti-Muslim and anti-minority hate in India, has also left the community concerned at the rate at which Hindu nationalism was being normalised in the US.

“This is a very typical, strange characteristic of the Modi government that they claim legitimacy from the West,” Taseer said.

“What they want are people who write at the NY Times, who write at Vanity Fair, respectable people. And what the JLF has become is kind of an operation helping facilitate that.”

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