Literature has always been a space of resistance, and that is why ruling elites always crave to patronise its practitioners. Once, feudal lords favoured court poets, but, through history, some literary figures refused their indulgences. They preferred to write honestly about the realities of their time. One instance is the independently-written account by Kalhan of the contemporary ruler of Kashmir, Harsha, as an iconoclast and tyrant. Even Tulsidas declined invitations from the ruler, Akbar. His contemporary Kabir also attacked social taboos unequivocally.
Modern literature is even more self-sufficient and straightforward; poets and writers have written against socio-political systems the world over. Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sarojini Naidu and numerous others actively participated in the struggle against colonial rule. The Gujarati literary scenario was no different. Its poets and writers such as KM Munshi, Harindra Dave, Umashankar Joshi, Pannabhai Patel, Rajendra Shah, Bhagwati Sharma, Suresh Joshi, Gulam Mohamed Sheikh, Harinder Dave, Chinu Modi, Nalin Raval, Adil Mansuri, Chandrakant Baxi, Suresh Joshi, Madhu Rai, Raghuvir Chowdhury, Saroj Pathak and others held nonpartisan opinions through their literary careers.
After India freed itself of colonial tyranny, the post-independent government began building institutions afresh. First prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru established the Sahitya Akademi in 1954 as a central institution to promote literature, literary dialogue and publications. The most notable feature of the Akademi was its autonomous structure. The Akademi website says its task is to “work actively for the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards, to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them all the cultural unity of the country.” Registered as a society on 7 January 1956, the Gujarat unit of the Akademi is one of its 24 branches, each representing an Indian language. Even though set up by the government, the autonomy of the Akademi is its most important feature.
Proto-Fascist Governance and Subversion of the Akademi
Since 2015, in BJP-ruled Gujarat, the autonomy of the Akademi has been snatched away. It stands converted into an unofficial organ of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or Sangh). It has done this by appointing an RSS swayamsewak, Vishnu Pandya, as chairperson. His recent remarks on the now-famous poem by Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar should be seen from this perspective.
The Gujarat Sahitya Akademi was an autonomous body until 2015. It had 41 writers as members, empowered to elect a president according to the constitution of a charitable trust. However, once the BJP government came to power, it withheld holding the elections. The last election was in 1998 when the noted writer Bholabhai Patel was elected.
When Patel’s term ended in 2003, the BJP state government led by chief minister Narendra Modi placed the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi under the ex-officio command of the secretary of the Department of Sports, Youth and Cultural Activities. In 2015, the state government appointed Gujarati writer and retired IAS officer Bhagyesh Jha the new chairman without an election. The autonomy of the Gujarat Akademi was thus formally revoked.
On 1 May 2015, the foundation day of Gujarat, a section of Gujarati writers, including Ramesh Dave, Manish Jani, Prakash Shah, and Jaidev Shukla, kicked off a campaign to oppose the whittling down of autonomy. In November 2015, senior writer Pravin Pandya decided to return his award to the Gujarat Sahitya Academy as part of the demand to restore autonomy. A petition was filed in the Gujarat High Court as well. However, the government remained unfazed by this movement, and the then Akademi president, Jha, called the dissenters “Taliban”. It led to a boycott of the Akademi by the oldest literary organisation of the state, the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad.
Vishnu Pandya: Converting Akademi into RSS Mouthpiece
A Sangh historian, Vishnu Pandya was editor of the RSS mouthpiece Sadhana and an ardent admirer of Nathulal Godse. He was among the few who openly defended the statement of BJP Member of Parliament Pragya Singh Thakur about Godse during the 2019 election campaign. Considered close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was selected as chairman of the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi in 2017 by the state government. As if that was not enough, he was also awarded the Padma Shri in the same year.
Pandya’s selection as the chairman of the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi was the final nail in the coffin of autonomy. He openly flaunted his allegiance to the RSS and converted the Akademi into a Sangh/government mouthpiece. The Akademi promoted people close to the RSS and its ideology, and Parul Khakhar, now in the eye of a storm, was no exception. She got published in the Akademi magazine and her name was also proposed for awards. However, ever since she posted a poem, “Shav Vahini Ganga—Corpse-Bearing Ganga”, on Facebook, the scenario took a dramatic turn for her.
The poem uses the imagery of corpses floating in the river Ganga to portray the sorry plight of people during the ongoing second wave of the pandemic. The poem exposes the government for its inaction as well. It points an accusing finger at the top leadership—Prime Minister Modi—by referring to the famous literary folktale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In Andersen’s tale, two swindlers arrive at the capital city of an empire whose ruler spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters. Posing as weavers, they offer him clothes so magnificently fine that the stupid or incompetent would not be able to see them. The emperor hires them and sends a succession of officials to visit their looms to check progress. Their looms were empty, but officials pretend otherwise to avoid being thought of as fools. The emperor follows suit. In the end, the swindlers mime at dressing the emperor, and he sets off in a procession, naked before his city. Only a child blurts out the truth--the emperor was wearing nothing at all--while all others feared appearing stupid. People finally realised they got fooled, but the emperor, though startled, continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever.
Pandya must have been shocked that a woman close to the right-wing ideology has expressed anger against the government’s inept handling of the pandemic. States such as Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are among the worst affected during the ongoing second wave. Their governments are being accused of mismanagement and widespread data fudging. Pictures of corpses, suspected to be of Covid-19 patients, floating down rivers created a stir. In those moments of despair, Khakhar’s poem in Gujarati went viral on the internet. People translated it into most Indian languages and she became a star overnight. But furious right-winger trolled her viciously. She had to lock her Facebook account to prevent public visibility. Through all this, so long as the pandemic was severe, Pandya kept mum, but once the situation improved, he attacked her.
The Editorial: Out-of-Control Fury, Resentment
In his editorial for the June edition of the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi official publication, Shabdashrushti, Pandya accuses Khakhar of spreading “anarchy”. He preaches about the lack of essence in her poem and says it was no way to write poetry. (As if he can dictate to poets what good and bad poetry are!) The reason for his discontent is all too obvious: He felt the poem was “...being misused by liberals, anti-Modi, anti-BJP and anti-Sangh elements.” He invented a term—“literary Naxals”—to describe those who appreciated and shared the poem. This is hardly surprising, and absolutely in sync with the multiple attacks by the government and its propagandists on anyone who dares criticise it.
Adopting a carrot-and-stick policy, Pandya reminds Khakhar that her works found space in the official Akademi publication, and if she mends her ways, she would be welcome again. It is an apparent attempt to silence her and threaten other writers. He seems to have forgotten what George RR Martin once said: “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving that he is a liar, you are only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”
The editorial is not only in bad taste and dictatorial it manifests the frustration of a patriarch who wants to control the literary fraternity by hook or by crook. The Akademi under Pandya yearns to turn writers into propaganda-churning machines for the ruling party. Their state of permanent denial of the woes of ordinary people comes from an undemocratic mindset which favours personal interests and benefactors more than anything else.
The RSS as an organisation had nurtured this mentality in its vast following, and Pandya is no exception. His heart evidently does not bleed for all citizens, and that is why a poem that depicts reality irritates him. Albert Einstein had said that blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of the truth. Dissent is central to democracy, and its repression central to autocracy. It is outrageous for the chairperson of a literary body to issue statements that defend the government, but that is what the present regime promotes by filling institutions with inept right-wing ideologues.
It is high time writers condemn the statements of Vishnu Pandya and support Parul Khakhar. Writers, in all languages, must strengthen the struggle of Gujarati writers for the restoration of autonomy in the state Sahitya Akademi. Gandhi was right, silence does becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. Now it is high time to speak.
Ashok Kumar Pandey is the author of Kashmirnama and Kashmir and Kashmiri Pandits. The views are personal.