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

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Union budget 'mum' on relief to marginalised communities facing climate change impact

Counterview Desk  ActionAid, an international advocacy group which claims to work for a world without poverty, patriarchy and injustice, has wondered if the Union budget 2023-24, which is being acclaimed for providing succour to the middle classes, has anything to offer to the India's poor. In a statement, it said, while the budget may have "prioritised inclusive development", the financial outlay for ensuring it "does not show the zeal as hoped." Stating that the Finance Minister said Rs 35,000 crore revenue would have to be "forgone" due to a reduction in personal income taxes, "fiscal prudence is not enough to expand public employment, social security, welfare, education and health expenditures considerably." "The need of the hour is to raise revenues through the reduction of revenues forgone and innovative mechanisms such as wealth tax on super accumulation of wealth", it added. Text: The Union Budget 2023 has given significant

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.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Why no information with Assam state agency about female rhino poaching for a year?

By Nava Thakuria   According to official claims, incidents of poaching related to rhinoceros in various forest reserves of Assam in northeast India have decreased drastically. Brutal laws against the poachers, strengthening of ground staff inside the protected forest areas and increasing public awareness in the fringe localities of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the State are the reasons cited for positively impacting the mission to save the one-horned rhinos. Officials records suggest, only two rhinos were poached in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve since 1 January 2021 till date. The last incident took place probably in the last week of December 2021, as a decomposed carcass of a fully-grown (around 30 years old) female rhino was recovered inside the world-famous forest reserve next month. As the precious horn was missing, for which the gigantic animal was apparently hunted down, it could not be a natural death. Ironically, however, it was not confirmed when

Civil rights leaders allege corporate loot of resources, suppression of democratic rights

By Our Representative  Civil rights activists have alleged, quoting top intelligence officers as also multiple international forensic reports, that recent developments with regard to the Bhima Koregaon and the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) cases suggest, there was "no connection between the Elgaar Parishad event and the Bhima Koregaon violence." Activists of the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) told a media event at the HKS Surjeet Bhawan, New Delhi, that, despite this, several political prisoners continue to be behind bars on being accused under the anti-terror the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Addressed by family members of the political prisoners, academics, as well as social activists, it was highlighted how cases were sought to be fabricated against progressive individuals, democratic activists and intellectuals, who spoke out against "corporate loot of Indian resources, suppression of basic democratic

Kerala natural rubber producers 'squeezed', attend to their plight: Govt of India told

By Rosamma Thomas   Babu Joseph, general secretary of the National Federation of Rubber Producers Societies (NFRPS) at a recent discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, explained that it is high time the Union government paid greater heed to the troubles plaguing the rubber production sector in India – rubber is a strategic product, important for the military establishment and for industry, since natural rubber is still used in the manufacture of tyres for large vehicles and aeroplanes. Synthetic rubber is now quite widespread, but styrene, which is used in making synthetic rubber and plastics, and also butadiene, another major constituent of synthetic rubber, are both hazardous. Prolonged exposure to these even in recycled rubber can cause neurological damage. Kerala produces the bulk of India’s natural rubber. In 2019-20, Kerala’s share in the national production of rubber was over 74%. Over 20% of the gross cropped area in the state is under rubber cultivation, with total

How lead petitioner was rendered homeless when GM mustard matter came up in SC

By Rosamma Thomas*  On January 5, 2023, the Supreme Court stayed a December 20, 2022 direction of the Uttarakhand High Court to the Indian Railways and the district administration of Haldwani to use paramilitary forces to evict thousands of poor families occupying land that belonged to the railways.  Justice AS Oka remarked that it was not right to order the bringing in of paramilitary forces. The SC held that even those who had no rights, but were living there for years, needed to be rehabilitated. On December 21, 2022, just as she was getting ready to celebrate Christmas, researcher Aruna Rodrigues was abruptly evicted from her home in Mhow Cantonment, Madhya Pradesh – no eviction notice was served, and nearly 30 Indian Army soldiers bearing arms were part of the eviction process. What is noteworthy in this case is that the records establishing possession of the house date back to 1892 – the title deed with the name of Dr VP Cardoza, Rodrigues’ great grandfather, is dated November 14

Lack of welfare schemes, BSF curbs force West Bengal farmers to migrate far away

Counteview Desk  In a representation to the National Human Rights Commission chairperson, a senior West Bengal based activist has complained that villagers living near the border with Bangladesh are forced to migrate to as far away as Mumbai and Kerala because of lack of government sensitivity towards their welfare in original villages. Giving specific instances, Kirity Roy, secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), said, if the Border Security Force (BSF) had not put any restriction on agricultural activities, and if villages had properly implemented welfare schemes, these people would never migrate to other States. Text: I want to attract your immediate attention to the inhumane condition of the migrated workers of Gobra village, Swarupnagar Block in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal to seek your urgent intervention to protect the rights of these people. Gobra is a village situated near the Indo-Bangladesh Border where the border fencing is about 500 meters i

Bangladesh 'rights violations': US softens stance, fears increased clout of China, India

By Tilottama Rani Charulata*  In December 2021, in addition to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the United States imposed sanctions on seven former and current officers of the force, alleging serious human rights violations. Benazir Ahmed and former RAB-7 commander Miftah Uddin Ahmed were banned from entering the US. RAB as an institution was also canceled the support it was getting from the US and its allies. At the same time, those under the ban have been notified of confiscation of assets held abroad. The anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, RAB is the elite force consisting of members of the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladesh Civil Service and Bangladesh Ansar, and has been criticized by rights groups for its use of extrajudicial killings and is accused of forced disappearances. The government of Bangladesh has been insisting about lifting the ban on RAB, but the US had till recen