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Kumaon Literary festival: Panelists unable to move beyond personal political biases

The first session of the festival explored the concept of national ideologies in a globalised world. Photograph: (Facebook)

WION Kumaon, Uttarakhand, India Oct 16, 2016, 10.56 PM (IST) Vrinda Aggarwal

It is not a jungle of cement and concrete but a real jungle with trees, thick vegetation, unpaved roads navigable only by jeeps filled with sounds of crickets, birds, dragonflies and mosquitoes. At the venue of the festival, the few concrete structures seem to have emerged from the jungle rather than the other way around. Adding to all this is a lily pond with no lilies in it, but the sight of water still has that calming effect.

Amidst this backdrop, stage has been set with six chairs, four for the 'erudite' speakers, one translator and one moderator. The first session of the festival, after the opening ceremony promises to explore the concepts of national ideologies in the increasingly globalised world, nationalism and global politics. Everyone is looking forward to an intellectually stimulating discussion and in the end, take back something with them to ponder upon.    

It starts with one of the panelists saying that ideology is a leftist and western construct. In the US elections debate, people and leaders talk about Americanism and not nationalism, thus comparing nationalism with Mussolini.

Other panelists disagree with him and explore concepts like nationalism versus ultra-nationalism, the present times of  tagging anyone who criticises the government as anti-nationalist etc. A couple of panelists talked about nationalism at a global level where ‘migration’ and ‘terrorism’ have re-defined and distorted the definition of nationalism. A French panelist through his translator talks about that how in France, the idea of nationalism is quite dangerous bordering on chauvinism and superiority. The politicians are using the problem of increasing influx of refugees from Syria, as a tool to reinforce the french identity.

Before one could delve further into these ideas and explore them in depth, an argument ensued between the two panelists due to their differing thoughts. One of them asked the other about his relationship with Burhan Wani, thus politicising the entire discussion. After that, the other panelists did not get any time to talk and the same argument loomed large in the question-answer round as well.

The moderator, a seasoned journalist, tried hard to appease the two panelists but was unable to and finally closed the session. It is like one reaches the crescendo and then just falls flat on the ground. It is only the argument that one remembers rather than a few good ideas that could find their way in the session.

Even the translator of the French panelist gave up her job of translation after a few minutes.   

The next day, the first session again promised to explore the idea of whether the values of idealism and liberalism are being re-defined by a new aggressive nationalism but with a new set of ‘erudite’ panelists. In this session, the panelists went one step further and did not even give each other the chance to complete their thoughts and ideas. Their personal political biases led to a meaningless fight where all of them were speaking rather shouting at the same time. After a while, the moderator also gave up.

In the end, a debate that could have explored ideas and definitions surrounding nationalism, patriotism was trivialised by the personal biases of panelists on surgical strikes, cow vigilantism, Kashmir etc. One of the panelists even compared Dadri lynching with ISIS.

Literary festivals are places where one comes for exchange of intellectual ideas and concepts with men/women who have worked in their fields for years and hopefully, developed nuanced thinking on the problems plaguing the society. Maybe, also thought of solutions to address those issues.

Instead, it was more like a 9 pm debate on a news channel where the only difference is that at the festival, all the panelists got a chance to fight and shout even though they were doing this at the same time, and on the news channel only one guy gets to speak and the panelists don’t get a chance to open their mouth. Well, instead of letting eight speak, it is logistically viable when only one speaks.   

The anger in the Indian debate is increasing with no concept of tolerance or respect to each other's thoughts and opinions. The argument of one is not countered with another argument but with shouting and slamming, defeating the meaning of the word debate. The same is evident in our highest debating institution, the Parliament. One can just hope where people understand the meaning of debate and put forward a valid argument and nuanced thinking at the end of the dialogue and the discussion.

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