A discussion between linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky and historian-editor Vijay Prashad, part of the ongoing week-long Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, was cancelled hours before the event on Friday, the two said in a joint statement. Scheduled to take place on Friday evening, over the online platform Zoom, it was to be live streamed on various social-media platforms.
The move follows the duo’s decision to read a statement against “corporations such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular”, responding to a joint appeal by 50 activists and civil society members, urging them to not participate in an event sponsored by the company.
In their statement, the academics said that the organisers got in touch with them in September to participate in a conversation around Chomsky’s latest book, Internationalism or Extinction (2019, Routledge). Speaking to The Indian Express, Prashad said, “Both of us agreed to hold this dialogue because we believe that the themes in the book, be it the dangers of nuclear war, climate change, and the erosion of democracy, require debate and discussion.” Among the topics they intended to discuss at their session were India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the role of corporates, including the Tatas, in violating environmental policies and the rights of adivasis.
The US-based Prashad, who is the executive director, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and chief editor, LeftWord Books, added that they were only informed of the cancellation on the day of the event, without citing any reason for it.
Following the cancellation, Bengaluru-based writer Roshan Ali, who had a session at the festival on Saturday, withdrew from it.
Responding to the incident, a senior member of the festival’s organising committee said, “The different programmes at the festival give an insight into the kind of diversity of views and subjects being covered, which in the present political climate, would be considered absolutely anti-establishment. (For instance,) One of our sessions focusses on how India’s democracy is in danger. However, the idea of the festival is to have a free exchange of ideas, and not a free exchange of anyone’s agenda.”
In a statement late Saturday, the Festival Director Anil Dharker expressed respect and admiration for Chomsky, but said the decision to cancel the session ” was necessary to protect the integrity of the festival”.
The Vijay Prashad-Chomsky discussion on the latter’s book “internationalism or Extinction” , about the dangers posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation was to be “one of the high points” of the festival, Dharker said. On the morning of the session, he said, the organisers came across public correspondence mentioning that the session would also be used by the two discussants to make a statement about corporations “such as the Tatas, and the Tatas in particular, including airing the views of these activists, which was never the intended purpose of the session”.
The Tatas are the main sponsor of the festival. “The festival which I founded and run with a dedicated team, 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,” Dharker said.