On Wednesday, two days before the first-ever edition of the Pondy Lit Fest was to be inaugurated, the organisers found themselves in the middle of a fresh controversy when the Alliance Française Foundation, the parent body of its venue partner, released a statement distancing itself from the festival. Only the day before, an alliance of Left parties had demanded that the event be cancelled because they claimed it would promote a right-wing agenda.
The controversy has renewed the debate about the state of free expression in India.
The Alliance Française Foundation said in a press release on Wednesday that it regretted that the event had been announced “as organised in partnership” with its branch in Puducherry. It said that it was not judging the appropriateness or quality of the event. But it emphasised that the organisation had “an obligation of non-interference in political and religious discources of the host countries” in which it operated, and upheld the “values of tolerence and neutrality”. It said that the main objective of Alliance Françaises network has always been to teach French language and to promote Indo-French cultural exchanges.
The Alliance Française made the announcement after reports appeared in French news outlets, including the newspaper Le Monde, about its partnership with the festival.
Announced in July, the Pondy Lit Fest 2018 states that it “aims to invite outstanding thinkers, writers, and artists to propose new, creative, solutions to the many issues that confront us today.” The debut edition of the festival has the theme “Bharat Shakti”.
“If India has to realise her full potential and fulfil her destiny as one of the great ancient but still living civilisations, she must assert her strengths, re-conceptualise the narratives that define her, and vigorously but rationally answer her critics,” says the festival website.
The programme includes several speakers who have gained prominence in right-wing circles, such as scientist Anand Ranganathan, novelist Amish Tripathi, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri and journalists Kanchan Gupta and R Jagannathan. Also on the bill are Tamil writers such as K Panjagam and Pudhuvai Ra Rajani.
When the list of speakers was announced a few weeks ago, several people took to Twitter to criticise the festival’s seeming ideological slant. Things took a more dramatic turn on Tuesday when a group of Left parties, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the Dravida Kazhagam announced that they would protest near the venue to demand that the event be cancelled.
When contacted by Scroll.in, Jean-François Ramon, Director of Alliance Française Delhi and representative of the General Delegation of Alliance Française India and Nepal repeated the sentiment of the statement released by the organisation: “...the Alliance Française Foundation, to which the Alliance Française de Pondichery is bound, would like to remind that the statutes of the Alliances Françaises worldwide as well as the charter that the president of the Alliance Française de Pondichery has himself signed very clearly stipulate that the Alliances Françaises must abstain from any initiative of a political or sectarian nature.”
Ramon said that each local chapter of the organisation works independently and does not seek permission from General Delegation for any programming of events.
Lalit Verma, the President of the Alliance Française in Puducherry and a co-curator of the festival along with Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Makarand Paranjape, disagreed with the perception that the festival was dominated by right-wing figures. “A bird cannot fly with only with one wing – either right or left – but needs both wings,” he said. “People around me can create whatever they want to create. My intent is very pure.” Stating that the festival invited “prominent people on the left”, Verma said they had to ultimately factor in resources which could not include “business class flight tickets” and “five star hotels”.
Verma also hit back at claims that the festival did not include enough local writers and that any additions were only made after public criticism about its programming. “That is a blatant lie and a complete falsehood,” he said. “The invitation to the locals were much before the whole thing actually started. Orally, they had accepted it.”
He said that the decision to be a venue partner for Pondy Lit Fest had actually been made by the Foundation’s local representative, the Director of the Alliance Française in Puducherry, Gérard Gréverand. “In fact, he said it was an honour,” Verma told Scroll.in. Gréverand did not respond to attempts to contact him for comment on the festival.
Apart from Alliance Française Puducherry as a venue partner, the Pondy Lit Fest’s event partners include Pondicherry University, Sri Aurobindo Society and The Frustrated Indian, which describes its mission as one “to build a strong right-wing political opinion in the country.” Its media partners include Swarajya magazine and the Indic Today website.
“Nobody here is trying to prove a political point,” said Nandini Sen Gupta, a Puducherry-based journalist and author who will be speaking at the festival on two panels. Sen Gupta also helped organise the book launches that will take place during the festival. “Out of 15-20 panels, hardly two are political in nature,” she said, adding that a lot of people did not look at the complete list of speakers before coming to judgment about it. “You would have to be off your rocker to say Kalki Koechlin is right wing,” she said, referring to the Puducherry-born actor who is also slated to be a speaker at the festival.
Noting that at least 50% of the speakers were from the Puducherry and Chennai, Sen Gupta said the idea of the festival was to be inclusive, to reflect the nature of Puducherry, which is home to several disparate communities. She also criticised the call by political parties to cancel the event: “The whole idea of trying to cancel something is wrong. You can be in the audience and raise questions but you cannot say I don’t agree so I will never let it happen.”
Who can speak?
The question of whether some people or groups should not be invited to speak at literature festivals is not unique to the Pondy Lit Fest. In July, the Brisbane Writer’s festival uninvited writer Germaine Greer, allegedly due to controversial comments she made about rape. Closer to home, the Jaipur Literature Festival attracted widespread criticism in 2017 for inviting participants from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Just this month, a lecture by historian Audrey Truschke in Hyderabad was canceled, allegedly due to pressure from right-wing groups.
Responding to demands for the Pondy Lit Fest to be cancelled, Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, told Scroll.in that she did “not appreciate such a one-sided attitude to freedom of expression”.
She explained: “It is not only ridiculous but unhealthy for intellectual discourse to try to deny other people the right to speak. After all, every point of view has an inherent prejudice.” Gokhale also added that she had been invited to the Pondy Lit Fest but was unable to attend because of conflicting schedules with another literature festival that she is organising.
For Chennai-based translator and writer N Kalyan Raman, the controversy is a good time to reflect on whether India’s many established literature festivals are actually inclusive. “Not everyone who is a significant contributor is invited as a matter of course to participate in the discourse,” he said. “There are always dynamics of private preference, collusion and exclusion at work in mainstream lit fests and other forms of institution-led discourses.”
Stating that all “bhasha” literature events are much likelier to have political participation because they need to be patronised directly by the state, Raman said of the Pondy Lit Fest: “Even if a counter-platform is set up, they can equally claim to be neutral, just as people on the other side do. The healthiest way to deal with such a situation is at face value. Say what you don’t agree with, engage with them and make your case.”