In Imagination, in Resistance, in Solidarity and Rage – People’s Literary Festival in Kolkata: Tamoghna Halder

Guest post by TAMOGHNA HALDER

“It was the unlikeliest setting for a ‘literature festival’. A run-down auditorium with rickety chairs secured with rope. Noisy ceiling and pedestal fans. Battle scarred tables covered with threadbare cloth. But the first edition of the People’s Lit Fest, held in Kolkata, was designed to be just that – a radically different interpretation of literature and its role in modern India”

These were the opening lines of a report by Scroll.in, on the 1st edition of People’s Literary Festival, 2018. In less than a couple of weeks, the 2nd edition of People’s Literary Festival (henceforth, PLF) will commence, once again at that run-down auditorium with rickety chairs, namely ‘Sukanta Mancha’ in Kolkata. The present article hopes to shed some light on the reasons why those rickety chairs or the noisy fans are related to PLF, but before that, as a member of Bastar Solidarity Network (Kolkata Chapter), I feel compelled to explain why we even organize PLF in the first place.

A stated goal of PLF reads, “..our attempt is to orient literature to its critical social function. We are interested in bringing to the fore literature which recognizes the power structures around which our world is built and tries to envisage a way out of these chains forged by imperialist multinational capitalism, patriarchal oppression of women and marginalized gender identities, the foundational machinations of caste, by chauvinistic majoritarian nationalism and its oppression of all questions of self-determination. We will attempt to showcase and generate conversation emanating from writers who have in their own specific ways withstood the grasps of these chains in order to forge words and lines that have withstood and railed against the very historical constitution of these chains. And we want to do this without the diktats of any form of corporate sponsorship.”

But, let’s break it down to the basics first. PLF stands for People’s Literary Festival. To understand what PLF is all about, it is imperative for us, to first understand the term ‘people’; second, to understand what we mean by literature; finally, to understand why we call it a festival.

The toiling masses all over the world, the oppressed, the marginalised, are the ‘people’. Those who are exploited by the present political and economic system, those who produce the bread and rice we ate last night, produce the branded clothes we wear, are the ‘people’. And that definition, may not even include ourselves or the readers of Kafila in its immediate scope, albeit in its larger scope it does.

Literature, as we understand it, is not an outcome of mere individual brilliance. What the likes of Chetan Bhagat write, does not count as literature to us, or at least not as people’s literature. There is one, and only one strict condition based on which we count something as literature – whether or not the text pertains to issues of the ‘people’ as mentioned above. The authors of these texts could belong to various backgrounds, and not necessarily be under the immediate scope of the word ‘people’, but their texts should be. These texts can vary in their forms as well, it could be poetry or songs or short stories that challenge the status quo of power, it could be a novel or a critical essay or the play that discomforts the privileged by raising uncomfortable questions – it can be pretty much any forms of text, as long as they are written in a language accessible to the ‘people’. Thus, from activists to professors, from domestic help to daily wage earners, authors from all across the spectrum have been invited in both the editions.

Finally, festivities. There is a reason why we call this a festival. We do not intend to hold an academic seminar or conference, in fact that is the last thing we would want. We are here to celebrate resistance, celebrate defiance, celebrate the masses. PLF is not an event to promote cynical pessimism, but to highlight the enormous potential of resistance possessed by the ‘people’ across the geographies, from Tutikorin to Kashmir, from Bhima Koregaon to Manipur.

The implications of these three basic understandings are immediate. First, if we are talking about people, we cannot be accepting money from the state or the corporates. Thus, in none of the editions of PLF, corporate or govt. money will ever be used and PLF, as long as it is organized, will remain crowdfunded. If one day we fail to crowdfund it, we will rather stop organizing PLF in this scale, and split into thousands of literary meetings and street corners with minimal budget – but never ever accept any money from those who murder civilians from Kashmir to Kalinganagar.

 

Second, if we are talking about the people, we must appeal and attract the masses, going beyond the small circles of ‘woke’ intellectuals. Further, unlike the sanitized spaces of corporate sponsored literary festival, PLF should become a space where one can raise slogans of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ or ‘Kashmir Maange Aazadi’, like they should in a festival that celebrates resistance. Have we succeeded? A report on PLF published by The Hindu reads, “I noticed also a smattering of members from trade and peasants’ unions, but the organizers pointed out that they were there on an individual capacity and not as representatives of their institutions…..The atmosphere at the event was, of course, politically charged, but at the same time there was a sense of bonhomie. While in regular lit fests there is usually a bit of a distance between speakers and audience, here each segment flowed into the other.” As organizers, we also noted that the participation of coveted academicians from elite universities and institutions of Kolkata was significantly less, and almost minimal. Well, maybe they were too tired to travel all the way to Phoolbagan, which lies in northern Kolkata, away from the regular venues of ‘usual’ literary events or seminars, and that too on a weekend. If this absence was noteworthy, then so was the presence of some workers and farmers who travelled miles to reach Kolkata from the outskirts.

Third, as a crowdfunded event, PLF remains committed to reject any luxury in its process of organization. The authors were asked to contribute their share of roundtrip fares if they had the ability to afford; they were hosted in personal residences of friends and comrades and not in luxurious hotels. The venue did not have amenities such as air-conditioning machines amenities, and instead had some noisy ceiling and pedestal fans. No one complained, because no one was there to look for these amenities, they were there to celebrate, they were there to dance to the tunes of the revolutionary songs performed by Rela Collective, or to erupt in shouting slogans such as ‘Hand in Hand with Gorkhaland’, when poet Monaj Bogati read his poetry live on stage.

As the second edition of PLF is set to roll out, one needs to note that between the two editions, the political environment of India has gotten worse. The democratic functioning of most of the institutions is being jeopardized, minorities are under constant attack, and sane voices of rational thoughts are being choked every day. As the organizers of PLF, we, the members of Bastar Solidarity Network (Kolkata Chapter), thus identify the present political climate as a moment of rising Hindu Fascism in India. However, instead of jumping into the seemingly ‘cool’ trend of forming so called anti-fascist alliances, we deem it more important to understand the historical progression of events that led to the present crisis. And when we say this, we do not want to resort to any boring description of sociological changes over the post-independence years. Nor do we wish to write an essay using cliché rhetoric to explain how this rise of Hindu Fascism is connected with the interests of neoliberal markets and larger imperialist agenda of state machineries. Rather, let me present this with the help of an example.

Three of our invited authors and moderators from last edition, namely, VaraVara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonzalves are presently in Jail under fabricated charges. While we understand that this is part of a recent trend to threaten rational thinking and democracy, we believe this is nothing new. This same Arun Ferreira had to spend years in jail,and undergo terrible torture while in custody. Was democracy not threatened at that time, simply because the UPA was in power? In West Bengal itself, it’s hardly a decade that the CPI(M) throttled democracy by curbing multiple mass movements including Singur, Lalgrah and Nandigram with sheer brute force and portrayal of muscle power.

This is not to imply that we do not believe in a united struggle at the face of rising fascism, but the only ally we have in resistance is the toiling masses – we do not believe in shortsighted versions of anti-fascist struggles. So we stick to one of our basic agenda behind the festival – ‘to orient literature to its critical social function’, since critical literature is the most effective and also the least boring way to understand the history behind the rise of Hindu Fascist forces in India. Thus, while the opening panel of the upcoming PLF, titled “Bol Ke Laab Aazad Hain Tere” will host Tanveer Anjum (Pakistan), P.Varalaxmi (Andhra Pradesh), Shah Alam Khan (Delhi) and Uma Charavarti (Delhi) for a discussion on anti-fascist and anti-imperialist literature in general, the other panels will specifically focus on literature written under various political conditions that lead to the rise of Hindu fascism.

The economic basis of Fascism rests on exploiting the poorest of the poorest and dividing them with hatred. Mahadeb Naskar (West Bengal), Bama (Tamilnadu), Alpana Mondal (West Bengal) and Hafiz Ahmed (Assam) will discuss the literature of the working class – particularly, on the plight and the fight of the oppressed masses. Going beyond analyzing the already established nexus between crony capitalists and the state, they will also discuss, how, the state has always feared the unity of the oppressed and thus tried to divide the mass in the name of religion.

Malay Kanti De (Assam), Afzal Ahmed Syed (Pakistan), Shyam Besra (West Bengal) and Ranjana Padhi (Odisha) are authors who will talk about the literature of the displaced and refugees. Starting from the partition of 1947 till date, Indian state has failed to provide socio-economic insurance to the so called refugees, yet built an entire economy on their shoulders, using them as a source of cheap labor. Further, it kept displacing its own people in the name of development, in the name of building dams, and most recently, in the name of National Register of Citizens (NRC). By bringing forth the relevant literature, the invited authors in this panel will highlight how the issues of partition, displacement, and refugees were used by the state to fuel communal divide across the country.

In a panel titled, “Till the soldiers return their keys and disappear”, we bring forth literature from the lands widely seen to be occupied by the Indian state for decades, using severe military oppression. On one hand, Indian state has militarized a large part of India, particularly the hills and forests of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, with the aim of aiding the capitalists with the ownership of huge amount of minerals and natural resources of the region. When the tribal population of the region resisted the state’s forces, they were tortured terribly – and the oppression continues till date. The state could not write off the resistance of the tribal groups till date, despite militarizing the region so heavily that Bastar is now officially one of the most militarized zones in the entire world. Hemanta Dalapati (Odisha) and B. Anuradha (Andhra Pradesh) will discuss literature of these regions.

On the other hand, due to both economic and strategic reasons, the Indian state had kept Kashmir colonized for decades after decades using brute force, and the same holds for large parts of the north-eastern states. These regions have seen massive military violence and particularly with the implementation of AFSPA, the power of military forces has become unchecked and unaccounted for. The issue at stake here is much larger though, and not restricted to repealing of AFSPA – the issue of self-determination of the people of these lands, their aspirations, have been either rejected or ignored by every political party in the mainstream (some of which are holding hands today, to protest the rise of fascism). Chauvinist, nationalistic jingoism is a precursor to the rise of any fascist state, and this is what Anjum Zamrud Habib (Kashmir) and Monalisa Changkija (Nagaland) will share with the audience of PLF, by discussing the literature from the lands colonized by the Indian State with its armed forces.

Further, the nature of Hindu Fascism in India is intrinsically related to the feudal societal norms rooted in Brahminism and Patriarchy.Literature that confronts, condemns and transgresses these norms will be addressed by N. Rukmini (Andhra Pradesh), Leena Manimekalai (Tamil Nadu) and Meera Sanghamitra (Telengana). How the present rise of fascist forces are derived from Brahminical Patriarchy, bolstered every day by the caste based lynching, honor killings, and feudal familial relations based on heteronormativity – will be explained by these prominent activists and literary minds. This panel in fact is titled with one of the very famous lines penned by a feminist Ambedkarite poet Chhaya Koregaonkar (an invited author in first PLF) – “A new well must be dug, to bury the successors of Manu”.

In addition to these, we will introspect the progression of rightwing literature in a panel titled “Twisted Tales the Right Inc. Sells”. While Meera Nanda (Karnataka) will discuss the rise of saffron pseudo-science, as well as the effect of post modernism on scientific thought, Sunandan Roy Chowdhury (West Bengal) and Sabyasachi Deb (West Bengal) will discuss the neo-liberal market of literature, particularly the rise of the so called ‘apolitical’, ‘coffee table’ literature.

Thus, all these panels will directly connect the various political scenarios that underlie the rise of Hindu Fascist forces in India, and further provide a political outline of how the face of united anti-fascist resistance looks like in the literary world, which is perhaps nothing but the mirror of a society. To live up to our promises of festivity, there will be multiple performances by prominent people’s artists and groups, there will be slogans of resistance, raised with sheer outrage against all things wrong with the present regime – PLF will once again celebrate resistance, united with the people, PLF shall stand strong against the Hindu Fascists.

Tamoghna Halder is with the Bastar Solidarity Network, Kolkata Chapter

One thought on “In Imagination, in Resistance, in Solidarity and Rage – People’s Literary Festival in Kolkata: Tamoghna Halder”

  1. All good wishes for the festival. How fantastic that you have the line up of speakers you have. I really hope you will be able to get the speakers from Pakistan. May I suggest you invite Dr.Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, if not for this, the next edition, and Mr. Perumal Murugan? They both qualify as people’s writers.

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