India: Panel debate about the writer’s place in a totalitarian state

In India, the most scintillating, thought provoking and interesting session of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s second day, according to The Hindu’s Vaiju Naravane, was a session entitled ‘The Writer and the State’ which featured a panel of writers, who discussed the writer’s place in a totalitarian state.


The session at Jaipur Literature Festival in Diggi Palace on 25 January 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Rohit Jain Paras, The Hindu

The writers in the panel were: Ariel Dorfman (Chile), Frank Dikotter (China), Ian Buruma (Holland), Selma Debbagh (Palistine), and Sudeep Chakravarti (India).

The moderator Timothy Garton-Ash said occasionally it was easier for a writer living outside the country than for one trapped inside. He asked Frank Dikotter how he was able to criticise Mao from outside China.

“I write on the PRC but I live in HK and I have a Dutch passport. The people I admire are historians who took extraordinary risks for writing on the Korean War. And those are in my view are the real heroes. There are others who don’t go that far and I understand why they have to do that in order to write. I can even vaguely understand certain would like to become part of the China Writers Association. I do occasionally have a plea for some of my friends from across HK.”

He was of course referring to the recent Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan who according to certain critics failed to “adequately” to criticise the Chinese regime.

Ian Buruma said, “True state of freedom was to be able to choose how far one wished to be a resistant and that a writer should be free to decide whether he wished to oppose regimes, opt for politics or keep out of it altogether.”

Selma Dabbagh, the only woman on the panel said she found it hard to go back and forth between the national narrative and to reconcile it with her own life in London. Although, she said the notion of Israeli occupation was newer out of her mind and the differences between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian factions made the situation far more complicated. “I have this mixed background in which my father was dispossessed in 1948 – the normal narrative and yet I have not lived through the occupation. People are very possessive about their narratives and for an outsider like me it is very difficult which one to choose.”

Some of the most telling remarks from Sudeep Chakravarti said that despite the fact that India was such a vibrant democracy, the lines were being blurred. That business and the stat were in a way getting morphed which was cutting out the ordinary citizen. “That is very, very dangerous and therefore we need all the freedom of speech we have and we need to use it well,” he concluded.

The Hindu – 25 January 2013:
‘A writer should be free to be political or apolitical’

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