Tata Lit Live cancels talk between Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad; author Roshan Ali withdraws in protest, citing sponsor interference

This move was preceded by an appeal made to the speakers by several activists, artists and academicians to boycott the festival since it is sponsored by the Tata Group.

FP Staff November 21, 2020 10:48:58 IST
Tata Lit Live cancels talk between Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad; author Roshan Ali withdraws in protest, citing sponsor interference

A conversation between Vijay Prashad and Noam Chomsky was cancelled by the organisers of the Tata Lit Live!

A conversation between academics and activists Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad scheduled as part of the ongoing Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest was cancelled by the organisers citing "unforeseen circumstances".

The two were set to talk about Chomsky's latest work, Internationalism or Extinction, on the evening of 20 November but received an email in the afternoon informing them that the virtual event will not be taking place.

This move was preceded by an appeal made to the speakers by several activists, artists and academicians to boycott the festival since it is sponsored by the Tata Group. The letter alleged that the "Tata Group has had a long history of forceful displacement, human rights violations and environmental plunder" and that such festivals "are evidently an attempt to erase its crimes from the public consciousness – an ideological whitewashing."

In response to this letter, Chomsky and Prashad had announced that they will continue with the event and begin with the latter reading out a statement that "makes it very clear how we feel about corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular." However, just hours before this session was scheduled to take place, the festival organisers dropped the event prompting Chomsky and Prashad to issue another statement that 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." "Regarding the Tatas, we wanted to put on record a few facts that should lead sensitive people to understand what the Tata company has underneath its fingernails," it added. Following this incident, author Roshan Ali has withdrawn his participation from Tata LitLive stating that he cannot take part in a festival that "lets its sponsors dictate who can or cannot speak or what can and cannot be said." The novelist was scheduled to chair the discussion Pandemic Tales comprising panelists Emma Donoghue, Peter May and Shobhaa De on 21 November in the evening.

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UPDATE: Firstpost had reached out to the festival organisers for a statement, in response to which the following statement from Festival Director Anil Dharker was received:

I founded the Mumbai International Literary Festival in 2010, and in the decade since then, Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, as it is now called because of the Tata Group’s title sponsorship, has grown, not just in size but in stature, with many international participants calling it one of the best in the world.

Its success is due to the literary talent it has been able to consistently attract from all five continents. Another important reason is the wide range of ideas the festival has featured from writers across the political, economic and social spectrum. This is exemplified by the festival’s centerpiece, its annual debate, which always highlights a topical and much-discussed subject such as this year’s: ‘India’s Democracy is in Danger’.

The diversity of thought and subjects featured every year is another reason for the festival’s success. This year’s programme, for example, included the following sessions: The Cause and Travails of Migration; Dalits in Music, Business and the Classroom; Artificial Intelligence and its Future Dangers; The Tyranny of Merit; Trial by Media with TV channels acting as kangaroo courts; LGBTQ Inclusion in the Workplace; a session on mental health featuring specialists in the field and one on the internment of the Chinese in India in 1962; Investigating rape as a Feminist Act; The Future of Democracy in the Age of Strongmen; a session on Speaking Truth to Power through the medium of theatre; writing plays for differently abled actors; strategies for making healthcare broad-based; and a session on Nationalism and what it means to be Indian. Through the years, the one single criterion for the inclusion of diverse subjects in the festival has been that the session is centered around a recently published book on the topic.

Consistent with this convention of featuring a recent publication on an interesting subject, the festival devoted its prime time of 9 pm on the opening day to a wide-ranging discussion on US foreign intervention, focusing on the book ‘Washington Bullets’ by Vijay Prashad, who was in conversation with Prof Michael Hudson and the Diplomatic Affairs Editor of The Hindu, Suhasini Haider.

One of the high points of the festival was to be the session on Noam Chomsky’s new book ‘Internationalism Or Extinction’ on the dangers posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation. In conversation with Prof Chomsky was to be Vijay Prashad, who knows him well. However, on the morning of the session, 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.

I do not wish to comment on their reasons for accepting an invitation to participate in an event and using the platform to air adverse views about the main sponsor. 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. 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.

In conclusion, cancellation of the session is a considered decision I have taken in my capacity as Festival Director. 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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