Resisting Marginalisation With a New Literary Festival in Kolkata

In early 2017, when Kolkata hosted the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Festival, Kanhaiya Kumar, the former President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union was one of the speakers at the event. However, a group of students interrupted his panel to bring attention to the fact that 12 Adivasis in Kalinganagar were killed for protesting against Tata Steel acquiring their land.

The students belonged to a group known as the Bastar Solidarity Network (BSN). The group aims to spread awareness about the development-related atrocities committed in Chhattisgarh. After raising questions at the Tata festival last year, the Kolkata chapter of BSN organised its own People’s Literary Festival (PLF) at the Sukanta Mancha auditorium from March 24 to 25, 2018.

With PLF, the group wants to critique corporate festivals which appropriate the literature of the masses and restrict access for the privileged classes. “They [corporations like Tata and Vedanta] try to whitewash the histories of oppression and repression in the heartlands of India…We want to raise uncomfortable questions regarding their complicity,” said Jhelum Roy, one of PLF’s organisers. Therefore, BSN decided to crowd-fund a festival that will explore alternative Indian literature as well as make space for the marginalised that get excluded from such spaces.

Writer and activist Rinchin, theatre activist Ankur, and journalist and poet Vishu Rita Krocha inaugurated the festival with a panel on children’s literature. They discussed pedagogy was a political task and debated whether children should be taught about oppression and also wondered about the teacher’s hegemonic role in children’s lives.

Rinchin noted that “the marginalised/Adivasis are not well represented in stories. One also does not come across children’s stories where parents fight or those stories where the child deals with gender/sexuality identification. You have to politically align yourself to break these hegemonies.”

In another panel, poet Jacinta Kerketta echoed the festival organisers’ sentiments and highlighted the ignorance of corporate-funded literary programmes and their sidelining of Adivasi and marginalised voices.

Poet Chandramohan S. spoke about the tokenism that runs rampant in such circles. He said, “Perpetual violence is meted out to the marginalised communities. These fests only remember to include them when it is time to appear progressive. The topics discussed are also tame, that too by people who are convenient for the system.”

Telangana activist Skybaaba took on the task of explaining Telegu literary discourse on minorities, especially the treatment of Muslims. Along with Ghazala Jamil, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the two discussed the appropriation of the term ‘ghetto’.

(L-R) Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Skybaaba and Ghazala Jamil. Credit: Bulbul Rajagopal

“If Muslim localities that are separate from the rest of a city are called a ‘ghetto’, then why can’t Delhi’s C.R. Park [associated with its affluent Bengali Hindu residents] also be called one?” asked Jamil.

Gender and sexual marginalisation were discussed by Kutti Revathi, doctor, poet and editor of Panikkudam, the first Tamil feminist magazine, and Haripriya Soibam, poet and professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. Sahitya Akademi award-winning author, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, whose book The Adivasi Will Not Dance was temporarily banned by the Jharkhand government for portraying “Santhal women in a bad light,” read the segment which sent the Jharkhand government into a frenzy. The struggle for Gorkhaland was given a voice through the works of Raja Puniani, a performer-poet from Darjeeling.

NIlanjana Sengupta, Haripriya Soibam and Kutti Revathi. Credit: Bulbul Rajagopal

PLF succeeded in bringing together voices of resistance from various movements in order to bridge differences to create a united front against fascism. Jhelum and her comrades do not know where these conversations will go from here, but they intend to think of alternative platforms that will “resist the corporate appropriation of literature and neo-liberalism, and will also lay siege to the status quo.”

Bulbul Rajagopal is a graduate student of Literature at the Department of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.