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New Delhi,Yogesh Pawar: It’s still a good eleven days to Diwali but loud fireworks went off at the Tata LitLive Festival on its opening night on Thursday. It was at a debate on ‘Freedom of expression is in imminent danger,’ where actor Anupam Kher and Nalin Kohli of the BJP were speaking against the motion, facing off with celebrated writers Shobhaa De and Sudheendra Kulkarni who spoke for it.
While Kohli to his credit tried to use his acumen as a legal eagle and decades of being a TV anchor and spokesperson of the BJP to make his point, his fellow panellist kept using personal attacks, rhetoric and politically charged propagandist statements to score points leading to him getting booed several times. When Anupam Kher realised that the debate was turning completely against him he sprang a surprise by charging noted columnist-writer and Tata LitLive Festival director Anil Dharker with arranging a “paid audience.”
This not only worsened the booing but saw members of the audience angrily asking him to apologise. When Dharker confronted him, Kher remained defiant saying, “You wanted this. Why didn’t you have the topic with a question mark after the topic of the debate? This shows your bias.”
Amidst rising crescendo of booing, Kher disregarded former BBC anchor and debate moderator Nik Gowing’s pleas to finish making his concluding minute-long remarks and went on to read the message trail between Dharker and himself which he claimed would expose this. The message incidentally only helped buttress Dharker’s point because it showed him allaying Kher’s fears that there wouldn’t be a free and fair debate.
Despite Kher’s attempts at running her down in his opening below-the-belt remarks when he called her “an editor of a film magazine which printed gossip about which film star slept with whom,” it was clearly Shobhaa De’s evening.
Actor and BJP MP Kirron Kher, who was in the front row jumped up to defend her husband when a young lady in the audience told Kher off saying he was naive and ill-informed about both culture and politics. “People still loyal to the earlier government are unhappy that a common man who rose from humble beginnings is taking the country forward. They feel unhappy that the same US which denied him a visa is going out of its way to welcome him in such large numbers,” she said getting praised by her husband from the stage with a “Kya baat hai meri jaan.” When the audience continued booing her too, Kher offered, “We’re used to booing, we’re theatre actors,”.
Though there were a few in the audience, like spokesperson for Kashmiri Pandits and the censor board member Ashok Pandit (who spoke spiritedly about the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits ), who tried to support Kher and Kohli, they were booed. The audience voted with ‘ballot pamphlets’, overwhelmingly agreeing that freedom in the country was in imminent danger just like they had at the beginning of the 75-minute long debate.