Jaipur Lit Fest begins with call for freedom of expression

Jaipur: After a raging row that forced Salman Rushdie to keep away last year, this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival kicked off to a peaceful start amid tight security with overriding sentiments favouring independent space for authors and the need to defend the freedom of speech.

Even this year’s edition, the eighth since 2005, is not free from controversies with both Muslim and right-wing Hindu Organisations raking up issues but festival organiser Sanjoy Roy made it clear that they would not be “bullied” by anyone.

While Hindu organisations are opposed to participation of Pakistani authors, Muslim organisations want that four authors who reportedly read out from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses last year should be kept out.

Rushdie, whose presence in the festival was strongly opposed and led to his calling off the visit to India last year, himself remarked in Delhi today that “it is cultural emergency. Well it is a different emergency.”

But, the organisers remained unfazed over controversies and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot appealed against politicising the visit of the Pakistani authors. He promised adequate security for the meet.

“We are against terrorism of mind and all kinds. We are not ready to be bullied. We have an extremely good Constitution and we need to stick to its principles. We cannot allow the agenda of India to be hijacked by any group,” said festival producer Sanjoy Roy.

“Authors don’t write to please. We should allow them the independent space to write,” he said.

Some Muslim groups had warned JLF organisers against inviting authors who have “hurt” religious sentiments of the community, including Jeet Thayil, Ruchir Joshi, Hari Kunzuru and Amitava Kumar, who had reportedly read out passages from Rushdie’s banned Satanic Verses at the event last year.

“It seems as if culture has become the new target and may it is because you know writers, painters, filmmakers, scholars don’t have armies, gangs or bully boys that you can put on streets to defend our novel or film or painting and so its not hard to attack,” said Rushdie, who is Delhi to promote the Deepa Mehta directed Midnight’s Children, a film based on his Booker winning book of the same name.

The event lineup has authors from Pakistan including Mohammed Hanif, Jamil Ahmad, Fahmida Riaz and journalist Sharman Ubaid Chinoy.

Rajasthan Governor Margeret Alva also spoke about the need to “remain committed to the inherent right of every individual to freedom of speech and expression”. “This festival is a celebration of this freedom in all its diversity,” she said.

“You, I believe, could well be that voice – strong and fearless, not bound by artificial barriers of class and creed but committed to the inherent right of every individual to freedom of thought, speech and expression,” said Alva.

The festival last year hosted around 1.2 lakh visitors and is expected to draw huge crowds this year as well.

“We have a world beating team of authors here. The registration has already doubled this year and we expect huge crowds especially at the weekend,” said festival co-director William Dalrymple. Organisers have lined up nearly 275 authors for the event.