On February 20, a Facebook post by a poet in the Northeast alleging sexual misconduct on part of an unnamed literary editor sent slow ripples through the small community of Indian poets writing in English. The incident, the post said, had occurred at a translation festival in Silchar, and had left her feeling “humiliated, reduced, and violated in a manner that I cannot properly describe”. She later identified the editor as Sudeep Sen.
A fortnight later, on March 6, 12 young poets that include Sumana Roy, Ellen Kombiyil, Mihir Vatsa, Aditya Mani Jha, Smita Sahay, literary agent Kanishka Gupta, Minal Hajratwala and Shikha Malaviya, co-founders of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, wrote to the Sahitya Akademi seeking to withdraw their poems from an upcoming poetry anthology being edited by Sen. The letter states: “Due to irreconcilable differences with Sen, we the undersigned no longer wish to be associated with him. We do acknowledge the Akademi’s work in creating this anthology and will remain with the project if the editor is replaced.” Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians, which has works by over 60 poets, is tentatively due to be published by the government-funded cultural body this summer.
“The rumours have been floating around for a while, but many people didn’t want to speak up before because of the clout he has. My dissent comes both from solidarity and from personal experience. I am familiar with how easily a narrative can be manipulated to suit a particular viewpoint. So, those of us who have voiced our dissent and written to the Sahitya Akademi to withdraw our work have done this only after we were entirely convinced,” says Semeen Ali, 33, a Delhi-based poet and one of the 12 signatories.
A 29-year-old male poet who has also sought to withdraw his works, says, that while Sen has been cordial with him, he came to know of one such incident at the Le Sutra Bandra Poetry & Literature Festival in January this year. “A female poet at the festival mentioned that he had been very aggressive with her. She was quite shaken, but she did not want to speak out,” he says.
Sen, meanwhile, has refuted the allegations. “The allegations are completely false. I have directly written to (her) last week — and I am waiting for her response. I feel very very wronged… Equally so by a group of writers who have chosen to be judge and jury and passed their instant verdict on social media — a sort of mob justice — but then isn’t that the zeitgeist of the time? Still, many, many people have reached out to me — fellow writers, academics, journalists — both men and women across all ages, and have expressed their support for me — and I am richer for that,” he says.
While attempts to contact Dr K Sreenivasarao, secretary, Sahitya Akademi, remained unsuccessful, sources in the organisation say that the letter from the poets has been sent to the advisory board and a decision will be taken following its recommendation.