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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Awards Drama in Maharashtra | Kobad Ghandy

Saturday 7 January 2023, by Kobad Ghandy

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The government’s Marathi language department on December 6 announced the Yashwantrao Chavan Literature Award 2021 to Anagha Lele for her translation of Kobad Ghandy’s book ‘Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir’. 33 awardees were announced on that day and the translation of Fractured Freedom was chosen for the Tarktirth Laxmanshashastri Joshi Puraskar. The book was published by Lokwangmay Gruha.

The next day, Deepak Kesarkar, minister in charge of the department, stated that he would “investigate” how the award was given. On Dec 12th the government issued a GR retracting the award of Rs.1 lakh to Ms Lele and also disbanding the committee set up for selection of a book for the best translation sighting administrative reasons. (This was one of the shortlisted books -published during the previous year- SENT to the selection committee by the Screening Committee headed by Narendra Pathak. It also sought a report from the secretary of the Maharashtra State Literary and Cultural Board of which Sadanand More is the Chairperson. He held a press conference and clarified that the same Narendra Pathak later objected to this award and hence the government cancelled the award as well as dissolved the selection committee. (He showed the objection letter written on Akhil Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad (ABSP)- affiliated to RSS - Pathak is president of Vidarbha committee of the said ABSP).

Lakshmanshastri Joshi, in whose name the award is given, was a well-known social reformer settled at Wai (100 km from Pune) at the foothills of the hill station Panchgani. In the 1930s, Joshi came under the influence of radical humanist M. N. Roy and quickly assimilated and embraced western philosophical systems. He questioned whether those that had the knowledge had the wisdom to lead, and recognized those that followed had inadequate knowledge. He was a member of Roy’s Radical Democratic party until its dissolution 1948. He wrote a Marathi treatise called Vaidik Sankriti-cha Vikas (Development of Vedic Civilization) in 1951. This treatise was based on six lectures he delivered at the University of Pune, where he traced the evolution of "Vedic" culture and its influence on modern India. He wrote a critique arguing that modern Indians became conflicted between meeting material needs and attaining spiritual enlightenment, thus fostering a collective weakness, disharmony and allowing caste differences to prevail. In 1954, he presided over Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, which was held in New Delhi. In 1955, he received a Sahitya Akademi Award for his work Waidik Sanskruticha Wikas (वैदिक संस्कृतीचा विकास). He served as the first president of Maharashtra State Board of Literature and Culture when it was established in 1960, and starting from that year, served for a large number of years as the president of the project of compiling Vishwakosh, a 20-volume Marathi encyclopaedia under the sponsorship of the above Board. He also spearheaded the compilation of Dharmakosha, a Marathi transliteration of the ancient Vedic/Hindu Sanskritic hymns. In Wai, he also opened a hostel for students of the Dalit castes, a factory for making hand-made paper and a printing press.

The award was cancelled not only on the basis of above objection but ALSO in response to a hysterical social media campaign by two Nagpur based organisations. Soon after the announcement about the award, the Legal Rights Observatory, run by former RSS pracharak Vinay Joshi, tweeted its objection tagging chief minister Eknath Shinde and deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on December 8. He stated “Outrageous..Uddhav Thakre govt has finalized literary award 2021 to bloody Naxal terrorist Kobad Ghandy’s Marathi Translated book.” This hysterical falsehood was repeated even though I have denied time and again any such association and also have been acquitted of all naxal related charges in not one state but four. Besides there is not one mention of it in the book. Yet the fake campaign.

On December 9, Nagpur-based English daily called Hitvad reported the LRO’s tweet, attributing it to “netizens”. “The netizens have demanded the state government to put hold on the award,” the report said. Not a very honest report!!!

Then again a letter was sent on December 9 to the government’s Marathi language department by Narendra Pathak, who was also part of the scrutiny committee which initially cleared the book for consideration by the award committee, on behalf of the RSS-backed Akhil Bhartiya Sahitya Parishad. Pathak was earlier in the news for being appointed as a society member in the Film and Television Institute of India in 2015 under the chairmanship of actor Gajendra Chauhan — the appointments of several others from an RSS background had subsequently led to protests by students.

It was these handful of people linked to the RSS that led the government to reverse the decision though not a word on its content, nor the quality of the translation. Whatever the views of the government, long before the award and retraction, a number of literary figures would ring me and compliment the translation as being so good that it read like an original. Few translations have that calibre.

But while the granting of the award went largely unnoticed its retraction raised a storm in Maharashtra with a large section of the literary world coming out in protest on the question of freedom of expression. About 30 Marathi literary personages led by Raosaheb Kasbe sent an open letter on the very next day (Dec 13th) to the minister of the Marathi Bhasha Vibhag responsible for the retraction. Marathi author Anand Karandikar (vaicharik ghusalan) on Tuesday (13th) announced that he was returning his award to protest against the Maharashtra government’s withdrawal of an award to Anagha Lele for her Marathi translation of alleged Maoist Kobad Ghandy’s memoir. Sharad Baviskar (his autobiography - Bhura) returned his Award saying it was राज्यघटनेचा तो अपमान आहे (Rajyaghaṭaneca to apamana ahe). Bavishkar, a lecturer at the JNU said he upholds the traditions of Shau Maharaj-Phule-Ambedkar and the step taken by the government was fascistic.

Marathi poet Neeraja also resigned from the government’s Sahitya Sanskruti Mandal late on Tuesday in protest. Like Karandikar and Neeraja, the literary world has supported the translator through various social media channels

Following members of Rajya Sahitya Sankrutik Mandal also resigned - Poet Niraja, Pragnya Daya Pawar, Writer Lakshmikant Deshmukh (former Mah Sahitya Sanmelam President), Avadhoot Paralkar, Vinod Shirsath and Abhijit Deshpande. Laxmikant Deshmukh and Suhas Palshikar also resigned from the Language Advisory Committee of the Maharashtra Government in protest.

It was Namdev Katkar who wrote a most sensitive piece on the issue which was widely circulated on social media by Kumar Ketkar. Also, a Marathi playwright, Amit Shinde, from Sangamner (Ahmednagar district) has requested that he do a play on the book.

On December 14th itself Ajit Pawar, leader of the opposition raised the issue in the Assembly and demanded that the government stop interfering in literary issues. Pawar said the Shinde-led govt was interfering in the selection of literary awards but political parties should not interfere in such matters. “The declared awards were withdrawn during the Emergency. But here an attempt is being made to impose Emergency without declaring it”, he said. Sanjay Raut of the Uddhav Thakre Shiv Sena strongly condemned the government action at a meeting in Nashik and Samna, the mouthpiece of the official Shiv Sena, carried an editorial condemning the action All said they found nothing objectionable in the book and though they may not agree with some of the contents the govt must uphold the freedom of expression and the right to express one’s views.

Anagha Lele herself has criticised the government saying (quoted in Indian Express Dec.17): “I think due to the name of Kobad Ghandy, the original author of the book, some people objected to the award on social media and also wrote to the government. And without any proper review, the government also took immediate action and cancelled the award saying the book supports Naxalism. Social media buzz was considered more important that the expert committee’s opinion, which is very surprising.”

The fact of the matter is that the original English was published in March 2021 and was launched with interviews by Karan Thapar, Barkha Dutt and many others as also a cover story in The Week. It has been a bestseller on Amazon for much of this time and is still selling well. It was later translated not only into Marathi but also Punjabi, Bengali, Kannada and recently in Hindi. The Tamil version will soon be out as also other Indian languages. Instead of labelling, it would be best to show how any of the content was objectionable.

There have in fact been two major protests against the government’s action. First, in Pune on Dec 16th, about 100 literary personalities gathered where a number of artists gave speeches including the translator Anagha Lele. Anand Karadikar said “The decision of withdrawal of the award has created discontent. Disturbing as it’s going to set a bad precedent.... Shows how civil liberties are shrinking.. according to an independent research report from Sweden.. the direct and indirect censorship score of India was 8 in 2013.. dropped down to 4.5 in 2019... India ranks 119. In my book Vaicharik Ghuslan (for which I too received an award which I returned) there were two articles criticising/exposing Sawarkar.. how totally unscientific he was, and the seven Techniques of RSS of brainwashing.. but that too was not taken note of while screening! Clear signs of fascism we are witnessing.....like calling Medha Patkar Urban Naxal.. So to put a stop to this onslaught we need to resist and returning the award as one such token act of resistance.” Lakshmikant Deshmukh who resigned from the Sallagar Samitee of the board presided over the meeting..Sandesh Bhandare, artist/ writer of Dakshinayan conducted the programme.

On December 25th there was a protest in a suburb of Mumbai, at Dombivli where a number of organisations and individuals participated.

While a number of Marathi media contacted me I issued the following Press Statement “Fractured Freedom in its English version has been a best seller on Amazon since its release in March 2021. The social media campaign against the author is full of lies and distortions as proved by my public statements and acquittal in all cases. Neither in the book is there any indication of it being Maoist in any way. The book in its conclusion says that in any social project for change one has to include the concepts of Anuradha Values (of naturalness, straightforwardness, honesty, simplicity etc) as also freedom with a goal towards happiness for the majority. What do they have against this? Besides the quality of the translation is the moot question for which the award was given and not the content of the book. Even before the granting of the award many a famous writer told me of the high quality of the translation. It is unfortunate that the Maharashtra government has fallen prey to this campaign and cancelled the award. But this does not diminish the quality and ability of the translator, Anagha Lele, who merely did this as one of her professional jobs. As her livelihood is dependent on her translations it would be unfair to deny her the award”.

Conclusion

The whole episode shows there continues a strong democratic tradition in Maharashtra, building on the non-brahmin values of Phule and Ambedkar. The way the literary world responded to the government action was indeed astounding even though the Hindutva tried to portray this as Maoist issue and sought to whip up a phobia against the book. Most of those who responded clearly stated they may not support the views expressed in the book but upholds the freedom of expression and the author should have that right. They found nothing objectionable in the book. It was when there was such an uproar that most of the opposition parties also intervened; as few could deny the traditions of Phule and Ambedkar in this state.

There is need to build on this democratic tradition of social reform and anti-brahminism rather than let the strong bhakti tradition get into the Hindutva fold as has been attempted in the Warkari Kartik Ekadashi pilgrimage to the temple town of Pandharpur. This pilgrimage that takes forward the tradition of Tukaram the social reformer, killed by the orthodox, is now being usurped by the Brahminical forces rather than continue in the tradition of Phule and Ambedkar. The 12 saint poets of Mahrashtra on which has been built the non brahmin tradition of Shahu Maharaj-Phule-Ambedkar, if not taken forward will also get brahminised.

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