Skip to main content

Writers in India are being told: Do as you are told, or your life and your art are not safe

Counterview Desk
Nayantara Sahgal, winner of the 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, was to deliver her inaugural speech at the 92nd Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan on January 11 at Yavatmal. In a surprise move, on January 6, she was disinvited following the allegation that her speech was “anti-government”.
In the speech, Sahgal compares today’s situation in India with that of Stalin’s Soviet Union, where young poet Josef Brodsky was arrested, with the interrogator waving a paper at him to say, “Do you call yourself a poet? Do you call this a poem? It is not a poem if it makes no material contribution to the Soviet Union.” Thrown into jail, Brodsky years later won Nobel Prize for literature.
Another example she gave was of famous Russsian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who was condemned to hard labour in Siberia for many years for criticising the government, and who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Excerpts:

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 hardship 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?
I am asking this question because our freedoms are in danger. The dangers to them are so much on my mind that when I was thinking about what I should say to you, I knew I had to talk about all that is happening in India today, because it is affecting every side of our lives: what we eat, whom we marry, what we think and what we write, and, of course, how we worship.
Today we have a situation where diversity, and opposition to the ruling ideology, are under fierce attack. Diversity is the very meaning of our civilisation. We have old literature 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 multi-cultural 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 religious and cultural identity.
At 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. At Independence, our founding fathers rejected a religious identity and had the wisdom to declare India a secular democratic republic, not because they were against religion but because they understood that in our deeply religious country of many religions, only a secular state would provide the overall umbrella of neutrality under which every Indian would have the right to live and worship according to his or her faith.
The Constituent Assembly which took this decision was made up of a majority of Hindus, yet they drew up a Constitution whose preamble affirmed a life of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all Indians. This high ideal was inspired by Ambedkar, who was the chief architect of the constitution, and a great Maharashtrian whose insistence that all human beings are equal, started a revolution against caste. That high ideal has now been thrown aside. The minorities, and those who don’t support the Hindu rashtra agenda, have become targets for fanatics who roam the streets.
We have recently seen five citizens falsely charged with conspiracy and arrested on grounds of sedition. These are men and women who have spent years of their lives working for tribal rights and forest rights, and for justice for the marginalised. Christian churches have been vandalised and Christians are feeling insecure. Lynch mobs are openly attacking and killing Muslims on invented rumours that they were killing cows and eating beef. We are watching all this lawlessness on TV.
In Uttar Pradesh, these mob attacks on the cow pretext have become common, while the authorities stand by and look on. When terrorism of this kind becomes official, as it has in Uttar Pradesh, where can we look for justice? Mob violence backed by the state goes on in many places on defenceless people, and the guilty have not been convicted. 
In some cases, their victims have been charged with the crimes instead, and in some cases, the criminals have been congratulated. The human cost of this tragic situation is that it is a time of fear and grief for many Indians who no longer feel safe living and worshipping as they have always done, and have a right to do. The poor and helpless among them – some of whom have been driven out of their villages and their homes and jobs – are living without work, or help, or hope, or future.
I write novels and my material for story-telling has been political. As we writers know, we do not choose our material. We make stories out of the material and atmosphere around us, and because I grew up during the years of the fight for freedom, the values of that time and of the nation it created have been the stuff of my fiction and non-fiction. I have thought of my novels as being about the making of modern India. But because my last two novels are about the times we are now living in, they are about the un-making of modern India.
As we are writers, let us look at what is happening to our fellow writers and artists in this political atmosphere. We are seeing that the questioning mind, the creative imagination, and freedom of expression have no place in the present political climate, and where there is no respect for freedom of thought or for democratic rights, writing becomes a risky activity.
This has always been the case in authoritarian regimes all over the world where art is kept under state control and writers face punishment and persecution if they step out of line.
Take the example of a young poet called Josef Brodsky in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Brodsky is arrested and his interrogator waves a paper at him and says, “Do you call yourself a poet? Do you call this a poem? It is not a poem if it makes no material contribution to the Soviet Union.” And he throws Brodsky into jail. Years later, Josef Brodsky wins the Nobel Prize for literature. Another famous Russsian case is of Solzhenitsyn, who was condemned to hard labour in Siberia for many years for criticising the government, and who also won the Nobel Prize for literature.
And now the same ignorance about art and literature is in action here, and writers are facing the anger of ignorant criticism, and much worse. Three eminent Maharashtrian rationalists, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, have been shot dead for rejecting superstition in favour of reason, and Gauri Lankesh of Bengaluru for her independent views and her opposition to Hindutva. Others have been threatened with death and forbidden to write. We are told, ‘Don’t publish your book or we will burn it. Don’t exhibit your paintings or we will destroy your exhibition.’ Filmmakers are told, ‘Change the dialogue in this scene and cut out the next scene or we will not let your film be shown, and if you show it we will attack the cinema hall. Don’t do anything to hurt our sentiments’.
In other words, they are saying: do as you are told, or your life and your art are not safe. But the creative imagination cannot take orders from the state, or from the mob. And the question of hurting sentiments is, of course, nonsense. A population of one billion people cannot be made to think alike. 
Every community has its own views and its own sensitivities on various issues. But sentiments cannot decide what is right or wrong. In some cases it is even our duty to hurt sentiments. If we had been forbidden to hurt sentiments, we would still be burning widows, and no reform of any kind would have taken place. 
---
*Click HERE for full speech

Comments

TRENDING

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam*
RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

RSS supremo Deoras 'supported' Emergency, but Indira, Sanjay Gandhi 'didn't respond'

By Shamsul Islam*
National Emergency was imposed on the country by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on June 25-26, 1975, and it lasted for 19 months. This period is considered as ''dark times' for Indian democratic polity. Indira Gandhi claimed that due to Jaiprakash Narayan's call to the armed forces to disobey the 'illegal' orders of Congress rulers had created a situation of anarchy and there was danger to the existence of Indian Republic so there was no alternative but to impose Emergency under article 352 of the Constitution.

Letter to friends, mentors: Coming together of class, communal, corona viruses 'scary'

By Prof (Dr) Mansee Bal Bhargava*
COVID greetings from Ahmedabad to dear mentors and friends from around the world…
I hope you are keeping well and taking care of yourself besides caring for the people around you. I’m writing to learn how is the science and the society coping with the prevention and cure of the pandemic. I’m also writing to share the state of the corona virus that is further complicated with the long-standing class and communal viruses.

Hurried nod to Western Ghat projects: 16 lakh Goans' water security 'jeopardised'

Counterview Desk
Taking strong exception to "virtual clearances" to eco-sensitive projects in the Western Ghats, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) in a statement has said urged for a review of the four-lane highway, 400 KV transmission line and double tracking of the railway line through the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa.

Disturbing signal? Reliance 'shifting focus' away from Indian petrochemical sector

By NS Venkataraman*
Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), a large Indian company, has expanded and grown in a spectacular manner during the last few decades, like of which no industrial group in India has performed before. RIL is now involved in multi various activities relating to petroleum refineries, petrochemicals, oil and gas exploration, coal bed methane, life sciences, retail business, communication network, (Jio platform) media/entertainment etc.

India under Modi among top 10 autocratizing nations, on verge of 'losing' democracy status

By Rajiv Shah
A new report, prepared by a top Swedish institute studying liberal democracy, has observed that there has been a sharp “dive in press freedom along with increasing repression of civil society in India associated with the current Hindu-nationalist regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” The report places India among the top 10 countries that “have autocratized the most”. Other countries that have been identified for rolling towards autocracy are -- Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil, Mali, Thailand, Nicaragua and Zambia.

Case for nationalising India's healthcare system amidst 'strong' private control

Counterview Desk
A draft discussion note, prepared by Dr Maya Valecha, a Gujarat-based gynecologist and activist, sent to the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) as also a large number of activists, academics and professionals as an email alert, is all set to create a flutter among policy experts for its strong insistence on nationalizing India’s healthcare system.

Oxfam on WB project: ICT 'ineffective', privatised learning to worsen gender divide

By Rajiv Shah 
A top multinational NGO, with presence in several developed and developing countries, has taken strong exception to the World Bank part-funding Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States (STARS) project in six Indian states – Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha – for its emphasis on information and communication technology (ICT)-enabled approaches for teacher development, student assessment and digital platform for early childhood education.

Coal blocks for tycoons: Rinchi village tribals may be declared forest land encroachers

By Gladson Dungdung*
On June 18, 2020, the Government of India initiated the process for auctioning 41 coal blocks for commercialisation. These coal blocks are located in different states within India and most of them fall under Fifth Schedule areas. The Indian government claims that their decision to auction these coal areas is a big step towards making the country Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant) in the energy sector.