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In Canceling The Lucknow Lit Festival, The Administration Comes Across As Fearing A Student

"The Lucknow administration has turned a small literary festival into a news event."

12/11/2017 3:16 PM IST | Updated 12/11/2017 3:31 PM IST
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CHANDIGARH, INDIA - OCTOBER 23: Kanhaiya Kumar Former JNU president addressing the media during RuBru program at Press club on October 23, 2017 in Chandigarh, India. (Photo by Karun Sharma/Hindustan Times)

A literary festival in Lucknow has just committed a grievous fault. And grievously hath it answered for it.

Its great sin? It had invited political leaders and Bollywood stars to speak.

Lucknow district magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma has said, "The organisers had not informed us there would be leaders and Bollywood stars. The administration has withdrawn permission." He said that organizers had not said politicians would come and make speeches which ran counter to the model code of conduct in place because of upcoming local body elections.

The politicians on the schedule included BJP leaders like Shatrughan Sinha and Varun Gandhi as well as AIMIM leader Asauddin Owaisi. The Bollywood stars included Divya Dutta. But the main stumbling block seems to be student leader Kanhaiya Kumar.

His event drew chanting protesters allegedly from the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Hindu Yuva Vahini, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and Bajrang Dal who stormed the venue shouting "Kanhaiya is a traitor".

The acid attack survivors who run the café formed a protective ring about Kanhaiya. The police arrived and the situation was brought under control. But the DM said since they had not been informed about leaders and actors coming to the festival, they had not made security arrangements. Sharma said permission had been only granted for a book fair and cancelled the festival.

The organizers told Indian Express they had informed the authorities about the event and though Kanhaiya Kumar's participation was confirmed later "his event was publicized and it was not a secret."

A literary festival in Lucknow has just committed a grievous fault. And grievously hath it answered for it.

First off, there's almost no literary festival in the country that does not invite politicians and Bollywood stars. One coming up in Lucknow itself from November 17-19 features Ram Madhav, Pankaj Kapur, Vishal Bhardwaj, Salman Khurshid among others.

The Bollywood/politician invitee is a given and it's silly to pretend otherwise.

Whether that's good or bad for literature is a different debate but literary festivals in this country would grind to a halt without their star power. In this case at least the invitees, even if not establishment favourites, could claim some literary connection. Kanhaiya Kumar has his memoir From Bihar to Tihar, Shatrughan Sinha has a biography out, Anything But Khamosh, and Varun Gandhi has written books of poetry.

Secondly, it's always the prerogative of the organizer or the funder who they choose to invite. For instance, if the festival is being done on government money, the government has a right to veto someone it perceives as inimical to its interests. We all like freedom of speech but no one wants to bite the hand that feeds it aka ruffle the main sponsors whether that's a media giant or the government or a mining conglomerate. That's just the reality on the ground and we would be naïve to pretend that was not the case.

And third there might well have been a paperwork problem here if the district authorities thought a book fair was happening and not realized a literary festival was also planned. In India, there's always a form that should have been filled out. There might be a perfectly real bureaucratic step the Lucknow festival had missed.

The Bollywood/politician invitee is a given and it's silly to pretend otherwise.

But by canceling the festival midway the authorities have presented themselves with a perception problem.

The perception is that the Lucknow festival is being made to pay for inviting the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar. The perception is that free speech is again under attack this time in a literary festival. The perception is that this is a warning shot to other festivals that invite the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar. Do so at your own risk.

The fact is other festivals have invited him and lived to tell the tale. The events have passed off without incident. In a country where literary festivals are now a dime a dozen, most make no news. By their ham-handed show of authority, the Lucknow administration has turned a small literary festival into a news event.

By their ham-handed show of authority, the Lucknow administration has turned a small literary festival into a news event.

Now Kanhaiya Kumar's barbs aimed at the government and the powers that be are being reported again in media. Piyush Srivastava reports that Kumar lost no opportunity to take digs at the government.

Asked about his marriage plans, he said "I will not hide my marriage from anyone like our PM if I tie the knot." He pointed out that some of the protesters had been taking selfies while chanting slogans and hoped that a literary festival would not become a "selfie-taking platform" the way the Prime Ministers converts every programme into one. And he did not spare the state's chief minister either saying Ram left his kingdom to be an ascetic in the forest, while in UP the chief minister "discarded an ascetic's life to be a ruler."

There's nothing particularly new about the barbs. If protesters had not decided to come and chant slogans Kumar's remarks, if they had ignored someone who at the end of the day is a student leader, his comments would probably not gone much beyond the venue. But thanks to the administration's actions they have now become national news. That's the problem with showing the iron fist so readily. The administration gives out the appearance of being both vindictive and afraid of someone who at the end is a mere student leader. Now Kanhaiya Kumar gets headlines like "I am ready to face bullets, no one can stop me from expressing myself" while the authorities look like a thin-skinned censor-in-chief.

The authorities wanted to send out a message. But the one that went out might not be the one they intended.

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