Maharashtra is becoming retrogressive: 3 Marathi poets on Nayantara Sahgal’s ouster

Sahgal alleged 'govt interference' after her invitation to a lit fest was revoked

Nayantara Sahgal Nayantara Sahgal | File

Renowned author Nayantara Sahgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, had kicked up a storm after she alleged “government interference” in the suddenly cancellation of an invite to inaugurate the 'Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan' in Mumbai.

"It is only obvious because the organisers of the event are aware of my views, my writings and my concerns, which I have been talking about openly, and they had invited me with great happiness,” she said. "I was all set to go for the event, but I received a brief three-four line letter from the organisers on January 6, saying they were cancelling the invitation," the 91-year-old writer, who was active in the ‘award wapsi’ movement, said. She alleged that there was political pressure on the organisers to cancel her invite.

Since then, the full text of the speech that Sahgal was supposed to give at the function was published by numerous news portals. Some excerpts:

Most of you were not born in the 1940s and you grew up in an independent country, so I have shared this personal story to show you the courage and discipline of those times and the spirit of the men and women who fought for freedom. My parents were among many thousands of Indians—known and unknown, young and old—who committed their lives to that great fight and suffered all kinds of hardships because they had a passion for freedom. I want to ask you, do we have that same passion for freedom today? Are we worthy of those men and women who have gone before us, some of whom died fighting so that future Indians could live in freedom?

Diversity is the very meaning of our civilisation. We have old literatures in many different languages. We eat different foods, we dress differently, we have different festivals, and we follow different religions. Inclusiveness has been our way of life and this ancient multicultural civilisation whose name is India is a most remarkable achievement that no other country has known. Today it is threatened by a policy to wipe out our religious and cultural differences and force us into a single identity. With one stroke, this policy wipes out the constitutional rights of millions of our countrymen and women who are not Hindus, and makes invaders, outsiders and enemies of them.

Since the incident, the president of the Marathi literary forum Akhil Bhartiya Marathi Sahitya Mahamandal (ABMSM) had resigned.

Three renowned Marathi poets spoke to THE WEEK, on the sidelines of the Kerala Literature Festival organised by the publishing house DC Books, about what the incident means for the fiercely social justice-oriented Marathi literature, which has spawned thinkers and writers of the likes of Jyotirao Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Namdeo Dhasal. The opinions were as varied: one of them cited the incident as an example of how retrogressive Maharashtra society had become, while the other sought to see a silver lining in how strongly the literary community condemned the incident, while the third spoke about the changing generational dynamics and that it would be much harder for the younger generation to thwart the “hidden enemy”.

Chandrakant Patil (Winner of Sahitya Akademi Translation award): Whatever has happened in connection with Nayantara Sahgal is very unfortunate. This shows that the most tolerant and most progressive state, with the most progressive ideology of social reformist movements, prohibited a great novelist fiction writer Nayantara Sahgal to attend and inaugurate the Sahitya Sammelan. We have condemned this, and most sensible Marathi writers [too] have condemned this. This was highly discussed and believed that this might have been instigated by some agencies of government—the BJP government. We have tradition of thinkers like Phule, Ambedkar and saint poets like Tukaram. This shows how Maharashtra is becoming retrogressive.

Prafull Shiledar [Winner of Balshastri Jambhekar Translation Award (2014) for Sanshayatma]: Nayantara Sahgal was invited for the 92nd annual conference on Marathi literature, a tradition of close to 100 years. When the organisers received the speech of [Sahgal], it became clear that it was a rebellious speech, [and] due to some political pressures, the invitation was taken back. Personally, myself and many writers like me dissented. I was invited for a poetry reading at the same convention, so I said I am boycotting. Most writers and fellow colleagues have condemned it. This has given bad signals about the image of a Marathi cultural life. What should also be noted that there are expressions of solidarity from many of the writers. Hundreds of writers have condemned and protested, and this is a very good sign of good health of Marathi literature.

Sridhar Nandekar [Winner of 'Poetry Literary Poetry Award' by the Marathwada Sahitya Parishad]: My generation grew up reading the works of [Namdeo] Dhasal and other dalit poets. We wanted to express that social unrest, that need for social justice. The difference only lies in the destiny or time, and changes that have happened like globalisation. The whole scenario changed and we were trapped in turmoil. How do we fight with this type of [a] changed world? There lies a difference in expression between dalit literature and 21st century Marathi poetry. As far as [the] confusion going on in Maharashtra, we are sorry that Nayantara Sahgal couldn’t attend the festival. Only a small section of the organisers supported this shameful act. All Marathi poets of my generation have really decided not to attend the literary festival. We support the power of expression. [For the future generation of Marathi poets] It is going to be very difficult because the enemy is hidden.