Pondy Lit Fest: Left Leaders Oppose Free Speech, Alliance Française Distances Itself

Questioning the decision of its Puducherry based affiliate to host the literary event, the Paris-based foundation says the litfest bears no "relation with the objectives of this institution."

New Delhi: Wading into the controversy over the upcoming ‘Pondy Lit Fest’, the Paris-based Alliance Française Foundation has questioned the decision of its Puducherry based affiliate to associate with the literary event and clarified that the parent body was not involved with the decision.

The statement, which comes against the backdrop of the demand by some Left leaders for the event to be cancelled, has underlined the manner in which freedom of speech and association in India are increasingly subject to political pressure of one kind or another.

The foundation, a not-for-profit that owns the rights to the Alliance Française franchise around the world including the Alliance Française de Pondichéry (AFdP), said it “regretted” the fact that the three day festival –  which begins August 17 – was announced as being organised in partnership with the AFdP and is scheduled to be held on its premises even though it has no “relation with the objectives of this institution.”

“Having learnt about the organisation of the event “The Pondy lit Fest 2018” and the criticisms and polemics that the aforesaid event has given rise to in the press and on social media, the Alliance Française Foundation, to which the Alliance Française de Pondichery is bound, would like to remind [sic] that the statutes of the Alliances Françaises worldwide as well as the charter that the president of the Alliance Française de Pondichéry has himself signed very clearly stipulate that the Alliances Françaises must abstain from undertaking any initiative of a political or sectarian nature,” the statement said.

The statement also said that the main objectives of the Alliance Françaises network in India is to teach the French language and to promote Indo-French cultural exchanges.

“It’s not for the Alliance Française Foundation to judge the appropriateness or the quality of the event “The Pondy lit Fest 2018”. This is the subject of an internal debate in India in which it is not mandated to intervene,” the statement said.

“In view of their obligation of non-interference in political or religious discourses of the host countries, and the values of neutrality and tolerance upheld by the Alliances Françaises, the Alliance Française Foundation regrets that the event “The Pondy lit Fest 2018” is being announced as organized in partnership with the Alliance Française de Pondichéry, without any relation with the objectives of the institution, and is scheduled to be held in its premises,” the statement said.

When contacted, Professor Makarand Paranjape, a co-convenor of the festival, said the Alliance Française de Pondichéry is only a venue partner. “From the start they were excited that there would be an international literary festival in Pondicherry, where we would also celebrate the Indo-French connection. The organising team also met with the French consul in this connection,” Paranjape said in an official statement sent to The Wire.

“As to the press release from the foundation, which is Paris-based, I am given to understand that the local AF team was not consulted before it was put out.

“In fact, the director, who represents the foundation, was very much part of all the discussions which led to the firming up of the venue partnership. We have written confirmation of this,” Paranjape said.

‘Free society must have room for debate, dialogue’

Earlier on Tuesday, an alliance of Left parties held a press conference in Puducherry demanding cancellation of the festival for allegedly providing a forum for the promotion of right-wing ideology.

The Hindu reported that the alliance, which includes the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Dravida Kazhagam (DK), will stage a protest near the Alliance Française on August 17 demanding cancellation of the festival, as it allegedly provides a forum for the promotion of right wing ideology.

State secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) A.M. Salim said the five parties would write to the French consulate in Puducherry and to the embassy in New Delhi complaining of the decision of the president of the Alliance Française to allow the institution to be used as a venue for an event of such a nature.

State secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)  R. Rajangam said the festival was “an event promoted by the RSS.”

This is the second time in 10 days that a literary or scholarly event is being jeopardised by political protest. Last week, a lecture in Hyderabad by the American historian Audrey Truschke was canceled after pressure from right-wing organisations.

“The Left parties seeking cancellation of the Pondy Lit Fest need to figure out where they stand on freedom of expression,” Salil Tripathi, chair, writers in prison committee, PEN International, told The Wire. “If they demand that the festival should be cancelled, they are the same as the religious fundamentalists who have sought to stop writers from speaking, be it Audrey Truschke in Hyderabad or some Muslim leaders in Jaipur, who prevented Salman Rushdie from speaking at the literature festival there a few years ago. ‘Right wing’ ideology has as much right to be heard and debated in India, as ‘left wing’ ideology. A free society must have room for debate and dialogue, and disagreements should be debated and discussed; ideas you disagree with should not be prevented from being aired.”

Festival co-convenor Paranjape said the controversy generated by the Left alliance was “politically motivated”. “It is a well-known part of the Left ideology that culture is deeply political; perhaps, that is why they are protesting so much? To me, it only shows intolerance for differing points of view. They don’t wish to participate, only boycott and condemn,” he said.

Responding to R. Rajangam’s criticism about the event being promoted by the RSS, Paranjape said, “This is a blatant falsehood.”

Writing in The Wire last week, the French-Indian author Ari Gautier questioned the lack of diverse opinion in the literary festival’s line up. “The lineup is filled with pseudo-intellectuals, wannabe writers and faux historians. Perhaps the bad choices can be attributed to the amateurism of the organisers, but what struck me was that a majority of the participants were all BJP supporters.”

Gautier also lamented the absence of local writers. “No Tamil writers have been invited. Pondicherry is home to great writers like Pranpachan, Ki Ra, P. Raja, Madame Madana Kalyani and Bharat Vasanthan, just to name a few.”

Paranajpe told The Wire that the allegation that there is no local participation is also untrue. “There are several panels and readings devoted not only to Tamil, but also to other local topics, including Sri Aurobindo, who lived in Pondicherry from 1910 to 1950. I would estimate that more than half the speakers/delegates are local, though I haven’t counted, which quite a high percentage compared to most major festivals.”

Titled ‘Bharat Shakti’, the first edition of the lit fest is expected to be attended by Union textiles minister Smriti Irani, lieutenant governor of Puducherry Kiran Bedi and Puducherry chief minister V. Narayanaswami.

Some of the participants in the festival include Aravindan Neelakandan, Amish Tripathi, Bibek Debroy, Vivek Agnihotri, Swapan Dasgupta and R. Jagannathan.

Critics allege that after the lit fest was first announced and the absence of local writers noted, a few Puducherry litteratteurs were added on to the programme.