A war of words has broken out in Kashmir. This year the disputed border region, long claimed by both India and Pakistan, enjoyed a relatively peaceful summer, until the announcement that a literature festival was to be staged in the capital Srinagar. This triggered a heated debate, with many top Kashmiri writers angrily denouncing the event, saying it would be inappropriate. The Harud Literature Festival was to be held later this month, but has now been cancelled.
For 20 years, Kashmir has been the centre of a bloody conflict, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives and left far more people displaced. It remains a highly emotional issue, and opponents claimed a cultural festival would send the message that things are normalising – when they are not.
“Kashmir is a conflict zone. It’s a deeply troubled place [and] any kind of intervention there is going to be read politically,” says Delhi-based Kashmiri documentary maker Sanjay Kak, who has edited an anthology of writings on Kashmir.
“Whether it’s a rock concert or literary festival, [Kashmiris] are going to ask who is funding this, who is behind it, why is it being held here, what are they going to do, who is going to benefit? It’s not a laidback place,” he says.
Opponents spelled out their grievances in an open letter. ”In Kashmir, with its history of intense repression and brutality… a context where deaths in custody, torture, rape, disappearances, curbs and assaults on the press and human rights activists are rife… holding such a festival raises those core issues about basic ideals and freedoms,” read the letter. The top two signatories were Basharat Peer and Mirza Waheed, both authors of highly acclaimed books on Kashmir.
The salvo ended up hitting its target, and organisers postponed the event indefinitely. “If those opposing the festival truly believed in free speech, they would have allowed this forum to go ahead and would come and express their dissent at the festival,” they said in a statement. Sanjoy Roy from the independent company behind the event, said the extent of the vitriol was unexpected. “We thought we would get attention, which was the reason we decided to do it. That we got flack from both the liberal left and the extremists on the other side, really caught us by surprise.”
The debate has not ended there, however. Just like the ongoing Kashmir conflict, the tit-for-tat exchange of fire continues. Since the festival was called off there have been yet more missives from both sides of the debate in the Indian media, sometimes descending into ugly personal attacks. Opponents have also claimed they simply wanted further clarification on funding and support. Whatever the intentions of either side, it is unfortunate that the opportunity for Kashmiri writers to showcase their work has been lost, at a time when they are just starting to be noticed.