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Vidarbha Literary Festival Curators, Organiser Step Down After 'Right-Wing Threats'

Sources privy to the developments at the festival said that activists belonging to right-wing organisations raised objection over four of the many speakers who were invited to the festival.

Mumbai: The three curators and organisers of the Vidarbha Literary Festival have stepped down, allegedly after right-wing activists began threatening them and approached key family members. The festival, exclusively catering to non-fiction writings and started just months before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is scheduled to have its next edition in February 2024. But curators Sukhada Chaudhary and Pawan Sarda and organiser Ruta Dharamadhikari collectively decided to step down last week.

Sources privy to the developments at the festival said that activists belonging to right-wing organisations raised objection over four of the many speakers who were invited to the festival. The objection was against inviting journalists and authors like Aakar Patel, Josy Joseph, Shruti Ganpataye and Shivam Shankar Singh to the festival. For the February 2024 edition, around 40 speakers were invited.

Patel, a vocal critic of the Modi government, recently came out with books that focus on Narendra Modi-led BJP government. Investigative journalist and author Joseph’s book The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State closely looks at bias that runs deep in the Indian security establishment against the Muslim community. Ganpatye, a Mumbai-based journalist, recently came out with her debut book Who Will Bell The Cow?: Beef Ban: Decoding its cultural, social, and economical aspects in India and Singh’s The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities: How Information Warfare Shapes Your World looks at political campaigns and disinformation.

Chaudhary said that the decision came in following the withdrawal of some major sponsors of the festival. The initial objection, Chaudhary confirmed, was raised against more than four speakers. “We somehow salvaged the situation and managed to convince them (the sponsors). But they refused to be convinced about the four important speakers at the event,” Choudhary said.

She also added that key team members’ families were approached by right-wing persons. “The pressure was built from different sides. When they felt we might not budge if the sponsors withdrew and try to personally raise funds, team members’ families were approached,” she said.

Chaudhary, Sarda and Dharamadhikari had a decision to make. Whether to let go of the independence in running the festival or step down. “The situation that we found ourselves in, only the latter was possible,” Chaudhary said. This, the curators say, happened as they could not have managed to run the show without sponsors supporting them. “Those who withdrew actually were funding over 60% of the total budget,” Chaudhary says.

The festival idea was mooted to focus on non-fiction writers. In 2020 too, many writers, known for their critical take on the current dispensation, were invited to the festival. “Like say Akshaya Mukul was one of the speakers. But that time, the festival was not as well known. It was our first attempt to bring writers together. And we managed without any pushback,” Chaudhary says.

When asked about who exactly had approached them, their families or the sponsors, Chaudhary refused to name names. “The business and local communities are very small here in Nagpur. It has taken a great deal of courage to publicly announce that we have stepped down,” she said.