Autumn was to have been the season of hope; a time for words and ideas, listening and learning. A time for the Harud (autumn) literature festival which would have made Srinagar join that membership of cities in the region that host litfests - Jaipur, Kovalam, Karachi, Galle and Thimpu.
Kashmir is a long way from Jaipur where the same organisers, Teamwork Films have managed to achieve such iconic status that hardboiled journalists like Tina Brown call it the 'greatest literary show on earth'. It was also at Jaipur this year where the organisers attempted a tentative test-drive with two sessions on Kashmir including one that featured Basharat Peer (Curfewed Night), Mirza Waheed (The Collaborator) and Kashmir-born journalist and author Rahul Pandita.
But Harud was doomed to be an autumn of discontent. Even before the authors could be announced, Facebook went viral with innuendo. Some reports suggested, erroneously, that Salman Rushdie had been invited, leading to the creation of a Facebook page that called for a boycott, hate mail and death threats. Now that the festival is off, the Facebook page has mysteriously disappeared.
That was just one of the problems. Earlier this month, Peer and Waheed wrote an open letter, signed by over 200 other writers, journalists and citizens listing various misgivings. To hold a literature festival in a state where 'basic fundamental rights are markedly absent' would be a travesty, they said. Moreover, the use of the word 'apolitical' by festival adviser Namita Gokhale (to whom I am related) became a red flag. In a state where 'political reality is denied, even criminalised' how could a literature festival be apolitical? The choice of venue, DPS School and Kashmir University, became contentious. And finally, there was apprehension that the festival was part of the 'state's concerted attempt to portray that all is normal in Kashmir'. The organisers said there was no state-funding or patronage, to no avail.
To expect art to be divorced from politics is naïve. To expect that a literature festival in Kashmir where an estimated 70,000 people have died and the Human Rights Commission recently confirmed the presence of unmarked graves with 2,000 corpses, would go off like a decorous tea party is even more naïve. Its geographic location alone was enough to ensure debate, dissension, heat and noise.
Cultural boycott has been a powerful tool, used most effectively against the apartheid regime of South Africa. Earlier this month, five of 20 Indian artists who had been invited to the Tel Aviv State Museum declared they would not go to protest the 'apartheid policies' of Israel. Also this year in Galle, writers Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky responded to a call for boycott by Reporters Sans Frontieres while Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai nixed travel plans to protest the suppression of dissident voices by the Sri Lankan government.
The cancellation of the Harud festival has led to an inevitable blame-game: organisers say it was cancelled due to security concerns (local writers had apparently been receiving calls to steer clear) and the 'hijacking' of the festival 'by those who hold extreme views in the name of free speech'. Harud's opponents say they never asked for a boycott; the organisers chose to shut shop rather than allow for dissent. Rebuttals and counter rebuttals are flying off the internet.
Of course, the dust will settle. But for some writers in Srinagar there is a sense of despondency. "For local authors this would have been a chance to interact with writers of reputation but we have been let down by the lobby of writers who pretend to speak for Kashmir," says Neerja Mattoo, head of the English department, Govern-ment College for Women. But perhaps the greatest loss is that of the audience, in Kashmir and outside. Srinagar is only an hour-and-a half away from Delhi. Yet in terms of imagination the distance is often huge. Harud would have given Indians and the world a chance to hear the voices within Kashmir, personal, first-hand and direct. Voices of anguish, of hope, of pain, of revolt from a part of India that is often seen but seldom heard. For now, we'll just have to wait.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal