If Pranab da can be heard by the RSS, why shouldn't Sehgal be heard by poets?

Monday, 7 January 2019

Dependence on government funds must end to ensure freedom of expression

The annual Marathi literary festival happening in Maharashtra known as Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan is once again in the eye of a storm. This time over veteran English author Nayantara Sehgal being first invited to inaugurate the festival and then abruptly being told by the organiser that she should not attend the event!

The media and literary world in Maharashtra is buzzing with allegations, claims and counter claims over why and how this happened. It is very clear and obvious that realisation dawned upon the organisers of the event that Sehgal was going to deliver a hard hitting speech at the convention speaking against what she thinks is an atmosphere of intolerance and communal as well as political polarisation currently witnessed in the country. The issue has become huge in regional media and social media in Maharashtra.

The organisers pretended that they decided to withdraw the invitation because a local group of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) members threatened that if a non-Marathi writer comes to inaugurate the event they would disrupt it. But it is now more than obvious that it was not the threat from these unknown political activists which made organisers change their mind but it was the prospect of the Chief Guests on the dais at the "sammelan" including Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party getting embarrassed by Sehgal’s speech, that worried the organisers.  So it’s clearly a case of politics interfering in the literary sphere and dictating terms, even at such a prestigious event which has been taking place for decades in various parts of the state and even outside the state once a year.

The core issue behind all this is the funding of these events. Marathi publishing industry has an illustrious history and is known to be quite lucrative. Yet the funding for these events of the literary events always comes from the government. The cores that the government gives as financial aid comes with strings attached and that’s the reason you see more politicians on the dais of these events than writers or poets! Not just this year but since the last several years we have seen chief ministers and cultural affairs ministers dominating the speeches and the overall messages going out from the dais. This has been the situation for years and years. Writers, authors and poets seen playing second fiddle to ministers and politicians has been the hallmark of the Sahitya Sammelans in Maharashtra. Now to add to that we have a situation where political forces are even seen forcing their agenda in terms of who can be invited to be on the dais and who cannot!

The general allegation seems to be that the right wing forces have forced the organisers to withdraw the invite issued to Nayantara Sehgal because of the prospect of getting embarrassed by her speech. If this is true they must realise that RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat himself is now setting a new precedent by inviting a former senior Congressman who is former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee to deliver a speech at no other place but the RSS headquarter in Nagpur itself. That is Mohan Bhagwat’s policy of making the organisation more tolerant because he understands that unless an organisation becomes more inclusive it will not sustain and grow. If Pranab da can be invited and heard at the RSS headquarter why cannot Nayantara Sehgal who opposed Indira Gandhi’s emergency be heard by everybody at the Sahitya Sammelan? Will RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s policy of being tolerant and listening even to once political opponents, not be followed by members and activists of political forces in power? 

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