- Several liberal and left activists and writers criticized the organizers for inviting the politician and accused them of “normalizing” Hindutva in the U.S.
Invitation to BJP national spokesperson Shazia Ilmi’s to speak at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival (JFL) in New York ended in an unseemly controversy with both protagonists and antagonists seething. As the fiery politician and former journalist gave the keynote address at the closing of the three-day festival, she faced protestors who objected to her inclusion in the literary festival. Ilmi was invited by the festival organizers to take part in a panel discussion on Sept. 14 at the Asia Society, and also to deliver the keynote address at the closing ceremony of the three-day event.
Several activists and writers have criticized the JLF for inviting a BJP politician and accused the organizers of “normalizing” Hindutva in the U.S. It has also been widely reported that two authors — Marie Brenner and Amy Waldman — who were invited to a panel discussion at the festival — refused to attend over their unwillingness to share the stage with Ilmi.
On Sept. 14, during Ilmi’s closing address, a group of protesters held placards outside Gallery Nine, objecting to her participation in the literary forum. “All you represent to us is genocide and deep betrayal,” they chanted, and said they didn’t need her “identity politics.” Their chants grew louder as Ilmi took the podium to address the attendees.
“[T]he chorus of the protesters grew louder as they flashed placards against India,” Ilmi tweeted. “And against this very telling backdrop of hate, I spoke of the necessity to bury hatred within and without. I will not allow borrowed hate and mortgaged rage to come between my truth and theirs.”
Speaking to American Kahani after her speech, Ilmi said that while “protestors have every right to protest but do they know what they are protesting against. While they accuse her of speaking against Muslim women, Imli said she has been speaking for Muslim women and championing their causes. “During Modiji’s government, the dropout rate for Muslim girls (students) has gone down from 70 to 30 percent, she noted. “That means 40 percent more Muslim girls go to schools.”
Her speech was mostly targeted at the protestors. She said that people develop rage and a strong dislike of certain people like her because of their affiliation with a certain party. She said their feelings are cemented by reading articles or hearing opinions against those individuals. “I can never take you away from the hate you feel, but I can tell you that hate is not the answer.”
She went on to remind the haters that she’s not just defined by her political choice, religion, the color of her skin, her ancestry or the region where she comes from, or her nationality. “There’s much more to me and to each one of us,” she said. “There is so much more we have in common as people, as humans,” she added. “I have my own truth.” She thanked JLF for “allowing” her to speak, and “for standing up” for her. “I think it’s extremely unfair to judge someone else without knowing where they come from.”
Before Ilmi’s talk, Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organized the festival, said that JLF was a platform where everyone’s voices can be heard. “Our only request was to do it respectfully,” he said. He acknowledged the JLF platform “represents all kinds of people with all kinds of points of view.” He continued: “If we are to make a difference, we need to be able to understand and appreciate that many truths can co-exist at the same time; many perspectives can co-exist at the same time. However, what we do need to fight against is hatred and violence. There is no place for violence.”
Pointing to the attack on Salman Rushdie, Roy said that “ignorance that causes a sense of fear, which causes hatred and ultimately leads to violence.” So collectively it’s not enough to say that it’s somebody else’s problem, it is the responsibility of each one of us artists and the public to stand up against violence and to show that there’s cause for conversations on both sides. He acknowledged them.”
One of the staunch critics of JLF’s Imli’s participation is British-Indian author Aatish Taseer. He told Middle Eastern Eye that those who had withdrawn from the festival were “afraid to make a political statement” since “they have relationships with people in the festival.” Taseer, whose Overseas Citizen of India card status was revoked in 2019 following his critical article on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Time magazine told MEE that many of the speakers were made to believe that were attending a festival with “respectable, intellectual people with bodies of work behind them.”
Historian Audrey Truschke, associate professor at Rutgers University, also criticized the festival. “I have spoken at the JLF twice in the past. Also in the past, JLF organizers have, privately, encouraged me to tone down my criticisms. Given those experiences + JLF’s BJP connections, I appreciate the reluctance of folks to speak for them.”
According to historian Gyan Prakash, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University, “inviting Shazia Ilmi to deliver a keynote address is different from inviting her to be a panelist. Protesting against it, is not cancel culture but a familiar right-wing ploy while practicing systematic oppression of Muslims, Dalits, and dissent.”
There were many who praised Imli for her “bravery” and “courage.” Silicon Valley venture capitalist Asha Jadeja Motwani, one of the speakers at JLF also took to Twitter. “I saw the ugly fascism of Indian Left first hand this week as I saw emails & DMs from them to speakers, writers, journalists & tech leaders – demanding we boycott events like JLF that invited a balanced set of views at their NY event. Object of their hate? Shazia Ilmi of BJP.”
Kapil Mishra, who described himself as “a proud BJP worker” on Twitter said he was “proud” of Ilmi “for facing these cowards with courage.”