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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. 
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*Click HERE for full speech

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