The irony cannot be lost in the fact that as Maharashtra was commemorating the birth anniversary of Balshastri Jambhekar (1812-1846 ), with whom began the rise of reason in the state, the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan (All India Marathi Literary Meet) succumbed to lumpen elements and revoked its invitation to well-known writer Nayantara Sahgal.
The annual jamboree will be held in Yavatmal from January 11. Maharashtra has seen such literary meets since 1878, long before the advent of trendy “lit fests”. Since Independence, while the chief minister is chief guest almost every year, the keynote speaker is usually a writer of eminence from other languages. Umashankar Joshi, Girish Karnad, Mahasweta Devi, U R Ananthamurthy have been either keynote speakers or delivered the valedictory address. This year, Devendra Fadnavis is the chief guest and Sahgal was to be a key speaker. The difference came in the form of elements who opposed Sahgal’s presence, citing her “English only” literary work. These thugs threatened to disrupt the literary meet. Sadly, instead of standing firm, the organisers withdrew the invitation to Sahgal.
This happened on the day the state was recalling the contribution of Jambhekar, the father of Marathi journalism. A brilliant academic, he was professor of history at Mumbai’s Elphinstone College and was in interested in mathematics, astrology, physics and meteorology. Jambhekar was among the first to embrace modern education, even before Lord Macaulay could lay the foundations of the Raj education system.
Since then, Maharashtra has come a long way. But the direction of its journey is questionable. The current surrender of its intellectuals could go down as new low in a continuing decline. Except few shining examples like the late Durga Bhagwat and P L Deshpande, who dared to question a towering personality like Yashwantrao Chavan for his role in the Emergency, Marathi literary meets of late have mostly been song and dance festivals.
This decline began in 1987 when the Maharashtra government undertook the task of bringing out B R Ambedkar’s collected works. Part of the collection was the hitherto unpublished Riddles in Hinduism, which led to a confrontation between Hindutvavadis calling for a ban, and those against such a ban. Not many intellectuals stood by the book, even though it was by none other than Ambedkar.
In 2004, there was a controversy over American author James Laine’s controversial book, Shivaji: A Hindu King In Islamic India, which allegedly contained uncharitable remarks about Chhatrapati Shivaji. Activists of Sambhaji Brigade, a relatively unknown outfit then, ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune for helping Laine write the book, which never saw the light of the day in Maharashtra. Intellectuals in Maharashtra didn’t break their silence.
In 2009, writer Anand Yadav was forced to stay away from the literary meet after the Varkari (worshippers of Lord Vitthal) sect threatened to launch protests against the author, angered at Yadav’s novel on Sant Tukaram. The author was left to defend himself and preferred to withdraw from the sammelan. More shocking than Varkaris and their demand was the complete silence over it in Marathi literary circles.
A similar situation was observed again recently, after Naseeruddin Shah’s criticism of the current state of affairs with regard to the freedom of speech. Aside from one or two exceptions, the Kumars and Khans of Bollywood were either busy at their new-year bashes or were dancing and serving food at an industrial tycoon’s family function. Not many writers or artists in Maharashtra had anything to say on Shah’s outburst.
Given this backdrop, no action is expected to reassure the eminent writer. The excuse that Sahgal has not written in a regional language is a facade. The real reason could be her active role in award wapasi and other issues. But that’s beside the point. Maharashtra was once known for its intellectual magnanimity. Revoking the invite to an eminent author proves that it is on way to its deintellectualisation.