Should not writers be made of sterner stuff?

BY Vidyadhar Date| IN Media Practice | 05/04/2010
Political expedience forced the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan to sidetrack an important discussion on freedom of expression.
It was a tragic omission given that the Sammelan has become a victim of interference in literature, feels VIDYADHAR DATE.


Poet T.S. Eliot spoke of April being the cruellest month in his poem ‘Wasteland’. Indeed, March turned out to be the cruellest month and the literary scene in Maharashtra is sought to be reduced to a kind of wasteland, taken over by corporate houses and politicians.


Freedom of Expression was the theme of a special session of the 83rd Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, the prestigious literary conference attended by thousands in Pune in the last week of March but alas, the issue was completely sidetracked due to political expedience.


In Maharashtra, more than elsewhere at present, the issue was crucial because of recent threats to film and books from both political parties and socio-political groups including the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Maratha Mahasangh and even educational institutions run by politicians.


The release of the Marathi film ‘Jhenda’ was delayed because of objections to the resemblance of the character of a defector politician from the Konkan region in Western Maharashtra to Maharashtra’s revenue minister Narayan Rane. Education barons were upset that the film ‘Shikshanachya Aicha Gho’  exposed them and  a serious law and order situation arose over the Shiv Sena’s   threats not to allow the screening of  Shahrukh Khan’s film ‘My Name  Is Khan’.


The sammelan itself has been a victim of interference in literature. At last year’s sammelan, the President, Anand Yadav, could not even deliver his  presidential speech or attend the sammelan because  of threats. Even the copies of his speech were not allowed to be distributed.


Last year, the threats were issued by members of the Warkari sect (who are inspired by ‘saint literature’) and who are otherwise considered reasonably tolerant as a community. They alleged that Mr Yadav’s novel  Sant Soorya on the life of  the 17th century Sant poet Tukaram  had tarnished his image. The very title of the novel comparing  Sant Tukaram with the Sun suggests that  maligning the Sant was far from the mind of the author.


So what happened in Pune this year?


Despite all the best intentions of  the organisers to discuss the increasing threats to freedom of expression, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan re-scheduled his visit, merely to avoid sharing the dais with film star Amitabh Bachchan at the concluding function the following day, an absurd enough excuse that attracted its fair share of sarcasm, including Marathi television channel host Rajiv Khandekar, who said that the chief minister should have exercised his ‘freedom’ vis-v-vis his own political party!


The sammelan was also an opportunity for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the alliance partner of the Congress-I, to settle scores. Only a week before, the Congress-I chief minister had shared the dais with the film star and was criticised as Amitabh Bachchan was the brand ambassador of the state of Gujarat, appointed by a leader tainted by the Gujarat riots of 2002. Bachchan resurfaced at the Marathi Literary conference at the behest of the NCP, ostensibly to embarrass the Congress-I further.


Back to the session on freedom of expression. The retired High Court judge, Narendra Chaplgaonkar, tried in vain to salvage the session by calling for more tolerance but when the session itself was amalgamated with a symposium on Marathi language, the battle to discuss freedom of speech and expression, leave alone defend it, was all but lost.


Should one be surprised at this turn of events? Not really, for these sammelans, huge affairs that they are, have actually been systematically taken over by politicians bent on projecting their own image in return for donations and hospitality. The latter become a staple for discussion, not any serious social, political or literary issues.


There is today, a general apathy of the literary establishment to issues of freedom of expression and communalism. But it wasn’t always so. In the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, reputed poet and Gyanpith awardee Vinda Karandikar was the only one to raise his voice strongly against communalism at the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in Satara. Karandikar was to inaugurate the Pune sammelan this year but died a few days earlier.


The rot in the literary establishment runs deep. The organisers of the sammelan were wont to accept the sponsorship of Manikchand Gutkha,  a tobacco product  widely known to be  injurious to health but this was given up only because of public criticism initiated, not by Marathi writers, but by Dr Abhay Bang, the doctor working  among adivasis in Gadchiroli district.


Of course, there is still a lot of good literature being written in Marathi. And some writers refuse to submit themselves to fight an election to get elected to these sammelans. Vijay Tendulkar, for instance, never became a president.


Tendulkar was a leading voice in the cause of freedom of expression and the fact that the literary and political establishment always opposed him shows how much they care for freedom. In fact, the Maharashtra government went out of its way to ban his play ‘Sakharam Binder’. In the

past writers have shown guts and dignity in dealing with political interference in literature.


Way back in 1981 writers held a protest sammelan what came to be known as the Samantar Sammelan to oppose the government sponsored annual conference. I remember it was presided over by Maltibai Bedekar, a renowned feminist writer. She delivered an excellent speech and got it absolutely right when she spoke about the political domination of the sammelans.


Writers should be made of sterner stuff.  Almost 200 years ago, rebel poet Percy B Shelley wrote a pamphlet pleading for atheism and challenging

the status quo.  He also declared in Defence of Poetry that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. It is time our writers hold their heads high, assert their freedom of expression and speak up for the people. The least they can do is stop being servile.












Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More