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Freedom of expression debated at Jaipur lit fest

Questions like whether India has a culture of "absolute freedom of speech" or is there a "thin line" that shouldn't be crossed while writing were debated and discussed here Wednesday at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The panellists directly referred to Tamil writer Perumal Murugan's decision to renounce writing following protests from various organisations.

The session "Is the Commerce of Literature Today Killing Good Writing" didn't discuss the commercialisation of literature and its effect on the content. Instead panellist and author Nayantara Sahgal, Tamil writer C.S. Lakshmi, journalist and author Mark Tully and publisher Karthika V.K. chose to elaborate on the "curbing of freedom of expression in literature" and how "books are being banned and burnt quite often" -- reflecting the intolerant attitude of various organisations.

The session was chaired by lyricist Prasoon Joshi who asked why issues like these are not debated by the mainstream media, and should contrarian voices be heard amid this din?

According to Sahgal, the time has come when one shouldn't be bothered about "hurting sentiments" as freedom of speech is something that should not be compromised with.

"Commerce has not only taken a place in our lives, but it has taken over our lives. It has taken over politics, weddings and sports," she said.

"Today you have to speak up without making any compromises. We are up against an ideology that is dedicated to outlawing dissent. But what we should not do is to cow down to these Hindu extremists who are emboldened by the fact that they are in power," she added.

Tamil novelist Murugan had announced his decision to quit writing on his "Facebook Page" Jan 13 after his novel "Modhorubhagan", whose story revolves around the problems faced by a childless peasant couple and the woman's attempt to get pregnant following a tradition of consensual sex with a stranger, was attacked by several organisations.

According to Lakshmi, it is this perilous environment that is making Tamil writers fear for their "right to write."

"Right now what we are worried about is whether we will be able to write at all," said Lakshmi.

"We have to worry about how commercial publications will continue to publish in an environment like this?" she added.

While it has gone much further in India where books are being increasingly banned or burnt, Tully, author of "Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle", feels these conflicts are a part of our lives.

"I don't think there is anything called absolute freedom of free speech," he said.

"There is an extremely difficult and narrow line to draw when it is what to write and what not to. But what is important is to have the state governments join hands against these hooligans who are destroying the meaning of freedom," he added.