Academic-activists Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad issued a statement on Friday night expressing regret at the sudden cancellation of a discussion they were scheduled to have at the online Tata Literature Live festival about Chomsky’s new book, Internationalism or Extinction.

The event was scheduled to be held at 9 pm on Friday. But at 1 pm, Chomsky and Prashad said that they “received an email which said, cryptically, ‘I am sorry to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, we have to cancel your talk today’.”

They added: “Further inquires informed us to be in touch with the festival’s director, Anil Dharker. No communication has been established thus far with Mr. Dharker...Since we do not know why Tata and Mr Dharker decided to cancel our session, we can only speculate and ask simply: was this a question of censorship?”

Boycott appeal

The cancellation of the event followed an announcement by Chomsky and Prashad on Thursday that they would begin the event by reading out a statement that “makes it very clear how we feel about corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular”.

On Friday night, reached out to the organisers of the event seeking an explanation for the cancellation.

[Update: In a reply, sent on Saturday, Dharker, the festival’s founder and director, explained that the event was cancelled to “protect the integrity of the festival”. He added that on the morning of the session, he came across correspondence in the public domain, between Chomsky, Prashad and a group of activists, which “clearly mentioned” that this session would also be used to make a statement.

Dharker added that the participants said they would speak about “how they feel about corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular, including airing the views of these activists”. This, Dharker said, was never the intended purpose of the session.

“What I do want to state as strongly as possible is that the festival which I founded and run with a dedicated team, owes its success to a free expression of ideas, not a free expression of someone’s specific agenda,” Dharker added. “The expression of such an agenda – whether against a specific organisation, a corporation or an individual – is therefore misplaced in the discussions at our festival.”]

The decision by Chomsky and Prashad to read out the statement followed a letter to Chomsky from several activists, artists and academicians urging him to boycott the festival because the Tata Group was its title sponsor. The corporation, the letter alleged, “has had a long history of forceful displacement, human rights violations and environmental plunder”.

It added, “Events like the Tata Lit Live are designed to solicit the endorsement of credible intellectuals, activists and authors and counter the ‘negative publicity’.”

Chomsky, who teaches at the University of Arizona, is a trenchant critic of the US policies. Prashad is the executive director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and has been involved with Leftist movements in several countries.

They declined to boycott the festival. But in a response to the letter that was published on a site called Counter Currents on Thursday, the two men said that they would start their event with a statement putting into context their thoughts about the corporations such as the Tatas.

They added: “We will then continue our conversation about Noam’s’ book, Internationalism or Extinction, making various connections between the general themes in the book and the Tatas.”

In their statement on Friday after the event was cancelled, Chomsky and Prashad said: “We wanted to appear at this platform in the spirit of open discussion to hold our dialogue about extinction and internationalism, about the darkest part of our human story and the brightest sparks of hope that shine in our world.”

They added that they would “shortly announce a venue and a date for our dialogue on the pressing issues of our time”.