New Delhi: Controversy has erupted after the Mumbai LitFest — a decades-old event attended by renowned authors from across the world — abruptly cancelled a talk by journalist Vijay Prashad and writer Noam Chomsky on 20 November.
The two were to discuss Chomsky’s latest book, Internationalism or Extinction, but received an email saying their session had been cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances”, resulting in criticism of the fest and at least one author dropping out of the event.
Chomsky and Prashad subsequently promised to hold their talk on an independent platform. The Mumbai Litfest organisers have since defended cancelling the session, saying it was “necessary to protect the integrity of the festival.”
Expected better of @anildharker, must say.
— Suvojit (@suvojitc) November 21, 2020
On one hand Tata’s mine public sympathy under FOE in the Tanishq case. On the other hand Tata themselves cancel out voices that may be unfavorable to them at a Lit Fest. Corporate muscle power stinks! https://t.co/YruO6GuArW
— Sangita (@Sanginamby) November 21, 2020
I will not be participating in the Tata Literature Live 2020. Below is my statement: pic.twitter.com/NR2KW27Hk0
— Roshan Ali (@crostipunctus) November 21, 2020
In a statement released 20 November, Chomsky and Prashad said they had planned to talk about how governments like the ruling BJP and companies such as the Tata group “are hastening humanity towards a deeper and deeper crisis,” alongside “broad issues that threaten the planet”.
Tata Group is the main sponsor of the literature festival.
On Sunday, Mumbai LitFest director Anil Dharker put out a statement of his own, saying that the “expression of such an agenda – whether against a specific organisation, a corporation or an individual – is… misplaced in the discussions at our festival”.
What Chomsky and Prashad said
In their statement, Prashad and Chomsky wrote, “We were pleased to join even though we had reservations about the sponsor of the event.
“We were going to talk about the broad issues that threaten the planet, but then also talk about the specific role of countries such as India and corporations such as the Tatas.”
They said they had planned to discuss a range of issues concerning the Tatas, including “a role in the killing of adivasis who were peacefully protesting the construction of a Tata steel factory in Kalinga Nagar, Odisha in 2006; the use of private militias to terrorise the population for a planned Tata steel factory in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh, about ten years ago; the use of Tata Advanced Systems weapons by the Indian forces against the people of Kashmir; and Tata steel’s release of hexavalent chromium into water sources that has created the fourth most polluted place on the planet in Sukinda, Odisha”.
The two also announced they would now hold the event on an independent platform and would make an announcement at a later time.
“The Tatas do not own the platform of the Mumbai Lit Fest, which began a decade ago outside their sponsorship,” they wrote. “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.”
LitFest director’s rebuttal
Reacting to Chomsky and Prashad, Dharker wrote Sunday that the decision to cancel the talk was taken after “we came across correspondence in the public domain, between Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad and a group of activists, which clearly mentioned that this session would also be used to make a statement regarding how they feel about corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular, including airing the views of these activists, which 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,” read the statement. “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.”
Dharker concluded by saying that he took the decision in the capacity of festival director, adding, “Much as I deeply respect and admire the work of Prof. Noam Chomsky, this decision was necessary to protect the integrity of the festival.”
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