Writers And The Erosion Of Democracy

 

By Vidyadhar Date

Celebrated architect Charles Correa often used to cite the story of a frog in water which is being slowly heated. The frog initially feels quite comfortable but by the time the water become really hot, it is too late for it to escape. He used to cite the example regarding the deterioration of the urban landscape.

 

But it also applies to the gradual shrinking of democracy in India.True, the assault on democratic values currently is at its worse. But this is not a sudden phenomenon. The recent lecture on secularism by reputed historian RomilaThapar was held amidst tight security in Mumbai . This has caused serious concern. But then liberals have overlooked the gradual erosion of liberties. The lecture was held in K.C. college. Just across it is the famed Oval Maidan surrounded by palm trees. It used to be a venue of trade union rallies, these are now banned, the area has been made very safe for the government headquarters and big money.

 

There has been a major assault on democratic processions in this financial district ever since the capitalists felt serious threatened by morchas like the one taken out by dalits in the mid eighties over the ban on Ambedkar’s writing on The Riddle in Hinduism. Most of the middle class and writers did not protest against these curbs because these did not affect them.

 

The big left wing morcha to condemn the murder of Communist leader Govind Pansare last February was forced by the police to be routed over a long flyover from Byculla to CST, ChhatrapatiShivaji railway terminus, preventing any contact between people on the street and adjoining areas and the marchers.

 

In the same area a meeting was held on October 30 to remember AnuradhaGhandy, a staunch left wing political and cultural activist and companion of Naxalite leader KobadGhandy. Across the hall is the historic Azad Maidan from of which citizens are literally locked out with a gate with a , big lock and a barbed wire fencing. And this is adjacent to the Mumbai Congress party office and the headquarters of the municipal corporation. So much for democracy for you. Small protest meetings are allowed in an enclosed space in a corner. Even pedestrians are not given access to a large part of the Maidan from the BMC side forcing people to take a detour.

 

The memorial lecture by a bright young dalit feminist MeenaKandaswami was well attended. Unfortunately several people could not understand what she was saying since she read out from her text at a breathless rapid fire speed from beginning to end. This is not to fault her. She is in her early thirties, talented and focused and she dealt extensively with the failure of the Indian State to give justice to dalits who were subjected to numerous physical attacks since independence. But this also brings us to the point about the question of progressive forces reaching out to the masses. One has been noticing this problem for over 40 years as a journalist at public meetings, seminars and workshops. Bad acoustics, accompanied by indistinct pronunciation, spouting of jargon and obscurity leave most participants in misery but few protest. The right wing, in contrast, is very particular about lucidity in communications.


Sameer Jain, the former boss of Times of India heavily commercialized journalism but he was right on one point, he insisted on use of simple language which would be understood by every one.

 

Ranganayakamma, a Telugu revolutionary writer, has written an interesting short story about the judicial trial of some revolutionaries. The judge acquits them of any offence of terrorism but hands out a sentence for writing in a language which people cannot understand. I admire her greatly but I find that her own book explaining Marxism to children, needs a much simpler way of explaining a very difficult subject.

 

The day after the Ghandy memorial lecture I heard the distinguished history scholar Amiya Bagchi speak on Marx at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai in the series on German philosophers organized by the Mumbai university’s philosophy department jointly with the Bhavan. Here again people found it difficult to grasp what he was saying but in this case one could understand since he is now very old and weak.

 

There is also need for self criticism in the Left movement. Senior journalist Gurbir Singh had a point at the memorial lecture when he pointed out that a large section of dalits now occupying important positions in the administration was not doing enough to help the weaker classes.

 

A staunch dalit activist and star actor of the Oscar nominated Indian film Court ViraSathidar, in an interview recently blamed the collaborationist dalit parties in Maharashtra for the weakening of the dalit movement leading to some dalit youngsters laying the red carpet for RSS cadres.

 

Dalit activists should also remember that several agitations of dalit toilers have been led by Communists. The Kilvenmani massacre in Tamil Nadu in 1968 was a brutal response to a militant agitation of dalit workers led by the CPM. Among the victims were 23 children. A Mumbai-based poet NoworzeMody wrote a sensitive poem on the massacre, recalled history scholar RusheedWadia.

 

Such sensitivity is not common among a good number of writers attending elite literary festivals these days. These festivals feature some interesting writers from different parts of the world but one suspects that heavy commercial sponsorship itself acts indirectly as a censor.

 

One such festival is the The Times literary carnival organized by the Times of India. Last year it had some very interesting events featuring fine personalities from different fields. But it also left one quite depressed and disappointed because it shows how big money is lording over our creative class and we are doing nothing to oppose this.

 

Why on earth does the Times of India have to have depend on a sponsor like Lodha builders when it is the most profitable media company in the country ? But then for many years Times also had the odious ManikchandGutka as the sponsor for Filmfare awards. Lodha group has an overbearing presence in the media with full page, cover page advertisements of the most luxurious apartments in the heart of Mumbai on land, some of which has involved displacement of the poor.

One of its advertisements was for a luxury complex in the heart of Mumbai where only 23 people would live per acre . Can you believe such gross inequality in a city with the most dense localities of the poor where people live a sub-human existence ?

 

I used to know the group owner MangalPrabhatLodha as a journalist a few years ago. He then used to operate in the distant suburbs but now lords over some of the costliest real estate in the heart of Mumbai.

And to rub it in, a banner at the venue, the famous Mehboob studio in Bandra West, declared that literature was the real estate of the mind. The message being sent out by the rich to the creative writers, film makers, scholars and musicians and the like is that we capitalists control you. You are there because of us.

 

This is clearly a most deplorable state of affairs, as odious as political interference of the right wing in culture. In Marathi literature a debate erupts every year on the issue of sponsorship of lavishly organized annual sammelans attended by tens of thousands of people. Most people do not like such sponsorship. The trend of sponsorship was started by GangadharGadgil, who was a very good short story writer, but also a very right wing writer on economic affairs, he talked of privatisation much before the vulgar era of liberalization was inflicted on this country. But the point is that there is at least resistance to this in the Marathi literary world to this.

 

One does not find any such opposition from the upper class crowd.

 

And how could one stomach the presence of a stall of the expensive whisky Johny Walker at the literary conference ? I looked at the prices. A peg of Blue Label cost Rs 1600, which is many times the daily income of many families in the country. And they had the gall to put up a slogan asking people to take a pledge to never drink and drive. So that absolves them of any crime committed in a drunken state.

 

It is such a pity because the festival has some excellent events every year and the credit goes to two very talented Times journalists, the well-known humoristBachiKarkaria and NamitaDevidayal, a trained vocalist, writer on music and author of a novel. This year the festival should be more meaningful with the presence of the reputed economist Thomas Piketty. Most of writers need a good dose of solid , pro people economics.

 

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