How Nepal’s geopolitically neutral space offers more room for international art festivalsDespite inclinations towards autocracy and censorship, Nepal remains the most free space in South Asia.
In 2012, the British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was scheduled to appear at the Jaipur Literature Festival. A fatwa on Rushdie’s head, issued in 1988 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, had lost support from the Iranian government and Rushdie himself was trying to put the past behind him. Islamic leaders in India, however, did not think the same, asking the Indian government to bar Rushdie from appearing at the literature festival. Although the Indian government refused a ban, Rushdie himself pulled out, fearing attempts on his life. Even when organisers put together a video conference in lieu of his presence, several Muslims activists gathered outside, fully prepared to conduct violence to stop Rushdie from joining the conference.
“Here in Nepal, there isn’t such intolerance for any artist,” said Ajit Baral, director of the Nepal Literature Festival, a yearly festival that brings together writers, artists and commentators from across South Asia and the world to Nepal. “There is a fear in India about what a writer might pen and a few months back, an editor was shot dead in Pakistan. In many spaces, guests speak at the risk of their life, not so in Nepal.”
With growing international artistic collaborations, there has been a rise in the number of festivals that seek to connect various cultures, religions and artistic sentiments. In Nepal too, such festivals have increased greatly in number. This past year alone, there was Photo Kathmandu, an international photography festival, the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF), and the Nepal International Literature Festival. There was also the Kathmandu Triennale, an international arts festival, in 2017 and this year will see the Nepal International Theatre Festival in February. Such international festivals happen elsewhere in South Asia too, but like in the Rushdie example cited above, censorship, political interference and threats of violence tend to figure prominently, especially when there are controversial artists involved. Nepal has somehow managed to remain a neutral and non-threatening venue for such artistic festivals, especially among South Asian countries.
“Our political environment is comparatively better than other countries,” said Rabin Giri, coordinator of the Nepal Literature Festival. “Our country is a good forum for contrasting opinions. In India, there is religious intolerance. Sri Lanka also has political unrest and things are quite difficult in Pakistan. But in Nepal we don’t have such issues, which is why it’s possible to bring together authors like Mohammed Hanif.”
British Pakistani writer and columnist for The New York Times, Hanif is no stranger to controversy. In 2017, an article that lampooned Pakistan’s military was censored by the local publisher of the international edition of The New York Times and was substituted by a blank space. In an interview with The Guardian, Hanif said, “To write about politics in Pakistan, you have to go abroad.” Hanif was a guest at the Nepal Literature Festival in December.
Although it might appear now that Nepal is this neutral and politically stable space, it took a long time to get here. It wasn’t long ago that the nation was burning with internal conflicts and democracy didn’t arrive overnight—it took decades of internal strife.
“History made Nepal an independent country long before other countries. We’re a relatively more open society in South Asia. Nepalis are not locked into preconceived notions. Even if we criticise our country, Nepal is a little more self-confident,” said Journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, who is also founder of the regional magazine Himal Southasian.
Despite occasional hiccups, there hasn’t been much by way of censorship and outright threats of violence, especially against international visiting artists. In a rare instance in 2011, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin was forced to cancel her appearance at the Kathmandu Literary Jatra because of security concerns. Again, in 2016, the Nepal government seized on Himal Southasian and forced its closure.
Dixit, its founder and editor and a stalwart advocate of bringing South Asia together with Kathmandu serving as its fulcrum, was jailed. But in the years since, there have been few similar instances, even though censorship and state overreach continue to threaten creative expression.
“Time to time, politically elected leaders wish to be autocratic and it makes us doubt them. Some of their actions look threatening,” said Giri. “Now the Nepal government has started imposing new laws that, in near future, might curtail the
freedom of expression of artists. So such festivals advocate to protect our freedoms and also act as a protest against the government from imposing such uncomfortable rules and regulations. Nepal hasn’t yet been caught in the whirlpool of intolerance like Pakistan and India, but there is a possibility.”
Despite inclinations towards autocracy and censorship, Nepal remains the most free space in South Asia, said Baral. “It is not just that festivals are rising in number but intellectual activities are booming now more than ever because we have liberal politics and even the people are liberal here,” he said. “We think that Nepal can become a free democratic venue and an intellectual saloon.”
The possibility of Nepal as an “intellectual saloon” was exactly what Dixit, Hanif and Harish Nambiar spoke about during a session at the Literature Festival in December.
But it is not just that Nepal is a relatively strife-free zone in politically-charged South Asia. Nepal’s liberal policy to provide tourist visas on arrival for citizens of almost all countries has also made it convenient for others to visit. “Due to historical evolution, we have the best visa regime. People can come easily to Nepal than other countries. And even the airfare is cheaper,” said Dixit.
A few hours’ flight from most South Asian capitals, Nepal is a convenient meeting point for South Asia. “A lot of regional conferences happen here as many people want to visit Nepal,” said Basanta Thapa, Chairman of KIMFF.
Nepal’s natural heritage also garners admirers who count festivals as a reason to visit. Mountain Film Festivals happen around the globe—even at some places where the the summits are absent. But in Nepal, organising such festivals that promote the beauty of the peaks also lets collaborators gain close experience with mountains, said Thapa.
Nepal has promise, whether it be political, cultural, social or natural. And it is this potential that is bringing international arts and culture to Nepal through these various festivals.
As Dixit says, the fact that Nepal is a “geopolitically neutral space” makes it not just easier but also safer as a place to hold international festivals where dissenting opinions, controversial viewpoints and polarising personalities can all come together respectfully and in tolerance.