"They made VD Savarkar, who formulated the idea of Hindutva and wanted a Hindu rashtra, president of their literature festival in 1938 but they did not even invite Dr BR Ambedkar to any of their events in his entire life," scholar and activist Pratima Pardeshi told The Quint.
Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan (ABMSS), or All India Marathi Literature Festival, is an annual gathering of eminent Marathi writers, poets and scholars. This year, the premier literary festival is taking place in Wardha, Maharashtra on 3, 4 and 5 February.
The lit-fest is not organised by the government but it enjoys political patronage.
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde was the chief guest at the opening ceremony at Wardha on Friday, and the event was also attended by Marathi language minister Deepak Kesarkar and Hindi poet and politician Kumar Vishwas. Additionally, the Maharashtra government has allotted 2 crore rupees as grant for this year's expenses.
Writer and retired judge Narendra Chapalgaonkar is serving as the president of the 97th edition of the sammelan – a ceremonial position that he will hold until next year's sammelan.
While this event goes on, another literary festival, called Akhil Bharatiya Vidrohi Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, is taking place just a kilometre away.
Pardeshi is one of the key organisers of the 'vidrohi' (which can be loosely translated as mutinous or rebellious) literature festival.
"We have completely boycotted the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan. We have objections to its content, form, and ideology. It is steeped in Brahminical, patriarchal and capitalistic values. If you look at the presidents of the first few decades, they were all men from a single caste. The organisers give space to Brahminical symbols like Saraswati and Parshuram on their stage, refer to murderer of Mahatma Gandhi, Nathuram Godse, as Pandit Nathuram. They have no right to take the name of Gandhi."– Pratima Pardeshi
The first vidrohi lit-fest was organised in 1999, as a protest against ABMSS's invitation to then chief minister and Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi.
Activists, writers and other progressives of Ambedkarite and communist persuasion were immensely angry at the then Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for the 1997 Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar killings in Mumbai, in which the police had fired upon people who had come out to protest against the desecration of an Ambedkar statue, killing 10 Dalits.
Mumbai-based activist Subodh More was involved in organising the first vidrohi sammelan. He told The Quint,
"We organised the vidrohi sammelan as a protest against the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar massacre as well as the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan. The then Shiv Sena-BJP government had tried to cover up the incident. Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana and Bal Thackeray had even justified it. Inviting Manohar Joshi to inaugurate the festival in such a context was completely unacceptable."
The vidrohi organisers chose Dharavi as their venue for the event. The ABMSS was held in Dadar's Shivaji Park, a Brahmin-dominated area.
"Dharavi is a locality of labourers. Anna Bhau Sathe and Baburao Bagul used to live there. It was a symbolic location in that sense," Pardeshi said.
The symbolism didn't stop here. The lit-fest coincided with the birth centenary of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. So the organisers decided to honour him as well.
Renowed Marathi writer Baburao Bagul was chosen as the president of the first sammelan.
While the events of the 1990s were the immediate trigger for the vidrohi lit-fest, it was a culmination of many Dalit, Adivasi and other literary gatherings of the marginalised over the decades.
Pardeshi traces the lineage even further back. She says that the vidrohi sammelan belongs to the tradition of Charvak, Kabir, Tukaram, Jotirao Phule, Ambedkar, who all had posed a challenge to Brahminism throughout history.
Jotirao Phule's Letter as the Ideological Basis
The first conference of Marathi writers was organised in 1878 at the initiative of MG Ranade. The Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan considers the 1878 conference as its origin point.
The second literary conference took place in 1885, and Ranade was again at the forefront of it. He wrote a letter to Phule on 13 May 1885 inviting him to participate in the event.
The conference took place on 24 May 1885, amid a tepid response. Phule too refused to go, citing prejudicial attitude of the writers participating in it as the reason. He instead wrote an open letter addressed to the organisers and published in Dnyanodaya magazine's 11 June 1885 issue.
"[E]steemed sir, the conferences and the books of those who refuse to think of human rights generally, who do not concede them to others and going by their behaviour are unlikely to concede them in future, cannot make sense to us, they cannot concur with what we are trying to say in our books ... These upper-caste authors who are forever miles away from reality and who can only make ceremonial and meaningless speeches in big meetings can never understand what we the shudras and atishudras have to suffer and what calamities we have to undergo."– Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, pp 250-51
Pardeshi states that this letter by Phule is the ideological basis of their vidrohi lit-fest. Welfare of the people and their unity is what Phule wished for, but that thought is completely lacking in the writers who organise these extravagant lit-fests, she alleged.
Space for All
Gandhian writer and thinker Chandrakant Wankhade was the president of this year's sammelan. He asserted in his presidential address on Saturday that oppressed people should not be forced to change according to the old theoretical paradigms – even if these paradigms come from our great icons – but rather our theories should change as per the times and the needs of the people.
Writer and social activist Kumud Pawade, who is most known for her essay 'The Story of My Sanskrit,' was honoured with Vidrohi lifetime achievement award at the event.
The vidrohi lit-fest organisers had made sure that the dais would have people from all castes, religions and dialects and that women would get equal representation. No politician could be found on the stage.
This diversity could also be observed in the audience. Most of them were Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, farmers, and labourers.
Wardha-based Nitesh Karale gave his entire speech in the Varhadi dialect of Marathi. He said that speaking against injustice is vidroh, and therefore we must be vocal about injustice as much as possible. He also said that when he was growing, he had a complex about his language but it is Varhadi that has made him famous now. Karale is known for his educational content on YouTube in Varhadi.
The book stalls at the venue were stacked with books mainly of Phule-Ambedkarite persuasion.
Even though lacking in the grandness, extravagance and glamour of the ABMSS, the vidrohi lit-fest seemed more representative of Maharashtrian society in its character.
Meanwhile, in an interesting development in later in the day, the president of the ABMSS, Narendra Chapalgaonkar, visited the Vidrohi pandal along with Dr Abhay Bang.