'Question of Censorship?': Tata Lit Fest Calls off Event With Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad

The move came after the two stated their intention to begin the event by reading out a statement that “makes it very clear how we feel about corporations such as the Tatas”.

New Delhi: Following the abrupt cancellation of their discussion at the online Tata Literature Live festival, activist and linguist Noam Chomsky and journalist Vijay Prashad have issued a statement accusing the organisers of  “censorship” and saying that they wished to have a dialogue “about extinction and internationalism, about the darkest part of our human story” on the platform in “the spirit of open discussion”

The event was scheduled to be held at 9 pm on Friday to discuss Chomsky’s new book Internationalism or Extinction. However, at 1 pm, they “received an email which said, cryptically, ‘I am sorry to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, we have to cancel your talk today’,” the statement by Chomsky and Prashad said.

“Since we do not know why Tata and Mr. [Anil] Dharker [festival director] decided to cancel our session, we can only speculate and ask simply: was this a question of censorship?” they added.

The cancellation of Chomsky and Prashad’s event came after their announcement on Thursday in which they stated their intention to begin the event by reading out a statement that “makes it very clear how we feel about corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular”. Previously, in a letter, several activists, artists and academicians had urged Chomsky to boycott the festival since the Tata Group, which “has had a long history of forceful displacement, human rights violations and environmental plunder”, was its title sponsor.

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Chomsky has been a longstanding and outspoken critic of American imperialism and corporate interests while Prashad is the executive director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

In their statement on Friday, the two said that they agreed to hold the discussion “because we believe that the themes in the book – the dangers of nuclear war, climate catastrophe, erosion of democracy – require the widest circulation and debate” and added that they were pleased to join the event “even though we had reservations about the sponsor of the event”.

“We were going to talk about the broad issues that threaten the planet, but then also talk about the specific role of countries such as India and corporations such as the Tatas,” the statement further said.

Chomsky and Prashad also noted that “the erosion of democracy” in India was a serious matter and expressed concern about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and “the vast sums of money that have now suffocated the voices of the hundreds of millions of impoverished Indian voters as examples of the problem”.

The statement also noted that governments such as those led by the BJP and corporations such as the Tatas were “hastening humanity towards a deeper and deeper crisis” and said: “We wanted to put on record a few facts that should lead sensitive people to understand what the Tata company has underneath its fingernails: a role in the killing of adivasis who were peacefully protesting the construction of a Tata steel factory in Kalinga Nagar, Odisha in 2006; the use of private militias to terrorize the population for a planned Tata steel factory in Jagdalpur, Chattisgarh, about ten years ago; the use of Tata Advanced Systems weapons by the Indian forces against the people of Kashmir; and Tata Steel’s release of hexavalent chromium into water sources has created the fourth most polluted place on the planet in Sukinda, Odisha.”

“It is with regret that we could not hold our discussion at the Mumbai Lit Fest, now owned and operated by the Tata Corporation” the statement read and said that the two intended to “shortly announce a venue and a date for our dialogue on the pressing issues of our time”.

In a statement released late Saturday evening, Anil Dharker said he took the decision in his capacity as the festival director and that the “decision was taken to protect the integrity of the session”.

“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… which was never the intended purpose of the session,” he said.

The festival, he added, 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, ” he said.

This article was updated to include the statement of Anil Dharker, the founder and festival director of the Mumbai Lit Fest.