A new day, a new literary controversy in India.
Another writer being hounded for causing "offence" to a group of people, the police stepping in to arbitrate in a matter that should ideally be settled by scholars and literary critics, a witch-hunt conducted on social media, courts being asked to ban a book. The script may be well-worn by now, and yet, its potential seems inexhaustible.
Earlier this month, a collection of poems by Vishnu Surya Wagh, written in the colloquial version of the Konkani language and published nearly four years ago, ignited the embers of a cultural war in Goa — a conflict that has escalated to interventions by the police and the government now.
It all started in August, when Sudirsukta (Hymns of a Shudra) was selected by the Goa Konkani Academy Award in the poetry category. The volume, which had sold out its print run of 500 copies on publication, found a new lease of life soon after — though for reasons that have little to do with its literary merit.
Passages from the poems in it were lifted, allegedly out of context, and posted on social media. The lines quoted were meant to decry Wagh's "abusive and and explicit language" and to also insinuate that his aim was to pit the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community in the state against the Bahujan Goans, thus leading to a battle between the castes, nothing else.
Within days, the police registered an FIR against the 52-year-old poet, who is presently incapacitated by a stroke, under sections 293 and 292 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 4 of The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986, based on a complaint filed by a women's rights activist.
"We have read the poems that were brought to us and we think they are not in good taste," the police official in charge of the case told The Indian Express. "The complaint was only registered after we were convinced it did, and can, offend someone."
The government of Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar seems to have no quarrel with this Orwellian situation in which the police are acting as the influencer of public taste. For, as the Express added, the government soon after "cancelled all the 32 undeclared literature and culture awards, including one for Wagh".
But the problem, in this case, is hard to wish away with a blanket ban. As it happens, Parrikar was present on the occasion of the official launch of the disputed book at the Kala Academy in Goa all those years ago.
Apart from being a writer, Wagh is also a former member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently is in power in Goa. In an essay in Vantage, Kaustubh Naik, Wagh's nephew, writes about his uncle's lifelong anti-caste and anti-rightwing politics — which didn't square with his foray into politics by joining the BJP in 2011, a party drunk on Hindutva. Most interestingly, though, Naik paints a portrait of a socially committed and intrepid artist, who didn't shirk from taking risks with language, idiom and ideologies.
Poets like Wagh, or the late Namdeo Dhasal, who founded the famous Dalit Panthers, may not be the most palatable to many readers for their problematic politics, but their personal ideologies cannot diminish the gift of their literary prowess.
Elected as an MLA in 2012, Wagh continued to criticise his party's politics in the state, for which, Naik says, he was berated by Parrikar. Stripped of his role as the chief of the Kala Academy in 2014 by the CM, Wagh was reportedly reinstated in 2015. But, as is now evident, his reputation among his erstwhile colleagues is far from restored.
Readers and scholars of Konkani may rightly debate the merit of Wagh's writing, but to penalise him simply for "obscenity" is to invoke standards that were last applied to literature of the so-called Victorian England. If the BJP and Goa police wants to purge sexually-charged language because it offends sensibilities, both of them have have their work cut out: look no further than cleaning up abusive trolls from social media where offensive speech amplifies far faster than it ever would from a book of poems, especially one that is out of print at the moment.
But sexualised imagery is only a part of the discomfort that Wagh's poetry has provoked. A strident voice against the persistence of caste, he also pours outrage against a system that keeps the sudirs — or low-caste shudras, according to the hierarchy of Hinduism — away from the Brahminical control over 'god'.
Smita Nair quotes in her article in the Express a handful of lines from one of the strongest poems in Wagh's anthology.
We have no swamis
And we have no mathas
The sanctum of the temple is closed to us
God lies in your fist
With all your differences you are all one
Whether horizontal or vertical
The caste marks on your foreheads
That indicate your Mahajanship suit you well
You lean against the temple pillars
While the rath is carried on our shoulders...
The message is clear as daylight, the sentiment cuts with the sharpness of a razor. No wonder the Saraswat Brahmins are piqued to the core by such modes of speech. Just as the Aryan Baniyas are furious with Dalit scholar Kancha Illaiah Shepherd calling out their historical regressiveness. Or Hindus are furious with Tamil writer Perumal Murugan for writing about an ancient casteist festival.
Recently, Shepherd faced a right tirade, which extended to physical assault, ranging from footwear being thrown at him to death threats, for writing about the economic dominance of the Arya Vysyas over lower castes. His article, which was part of his book called Post-Hindu India, published almost a decade ago, had been reprinted in Telugu recently, sparking the ire of his detractors, who have even taken their case to the Supreme Court, only to be told by the honourable court that banning a book is none of its business.
Apart from highlighting the injustices perpetrated by the Banias, Shepherd called the community "social smugglers", a term that had led to the explosion of hate towards him. Over the last two weeks, not only has he been at the receiving end of casteist bile but also, as he wrote eloquently in The Indian Express, radio silence from the government and, more shockingly, from the left liberals.
It's the last that should worry us the most, as it probably brings out the way class undercuts even the best textbook theories of liberalism. The BJP, as already known, is desperate to capitalise on the caste card for the 2019 general elections through means such as the sub-categorisation of the other backward classes. To call out that sham, the left liberals have to speak out, especially for any regional voices that are at the risk of being muzzled.
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