Panelists withdraw from New York literature festival over BJP presence

Following announcements that a leader from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be attending this year’s JLF events in New York City, activists and writers have told Middle East Eye that The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is normalizing Hindutva in the United States.

At least three panelists, including authors Marie Brenner and Amy Waldman, have supposedly withdrawn from the JLF as of Tuesday morning.  Requests from activists and writers boycotted 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, including one in New York from 12-14 September.

Brenner and Waldman have not replied to MEE’s request for comment, while festival organizers have disapproved to say if panelists had withdrawn. However, Brenner and Waldman are still listed as speakers on the festival website, as they were no longer on the plan of action as of Tuesday. 

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Taseer, whose overseas citizenship of India was revoked in 2019 – shortly after he published an article criticizing Indian PM Narendra Modi – said that many panelists were duped into believing they were attending a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 were more educated about the current political atmosphere in India and needed to be mobilized to inform participants that “these are full-on right-wing ideologues, including card-holding members of the BJP”.

“These people who are emerging from the New York side who are liberals would never be caught dead with these [BJP] people,” he said. So the JLF leaders have done something very, truly devious and sneaky.”

‘Cancel culture’

The BJP’s Ilmi, a Muslim leader, 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 make the keynote at the closing ceremony late that evening.

“If you say that these people left because of my presence, it is 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.

“And this entire cancel culture and self-cancel culture that they are bringing to the table reflects and stinks of the worst type of bigotry.”

Similarly,  Mahmood Mamdani, A renowned Ugandan writer, and intellectual, also scheduled to take part in a session on Wednesday evening, notified 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 organization, thus closing it to opposing or divergent views,” he declared. “My intent is not to normalize 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, decolonized future.

However, Suchitra Vijayan, director of the Polis Project in New York, was depressed by Mamdani’s reaction. “At a time when India is on the verge of becoming an apartheid state, it’s intellectual dishonesty at its worst and terribly saddening for those of us who grew up with his work,” Vijayan told MEE.

The 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 stated. “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 criticized for working closely with corporate sponsors as well as its willingness to include the Hindu right-wing at the festival.

In 2020, activists opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act, which helps create tiered citizenship in India based on faith, said they were beaten by private security hired by the event. South Asia Solidarity Initiative (Sasi) activists and others stated they will organize a demonstration outside the city’s festival on Wednesday.

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 neighboring New Jersey, in which organizers 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 normalized in the US.

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

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

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