Veteran writer, poet, and former BJP MLA Vishnu Wagh is under fire for his anthology of poems, Sudirsukt or Hymns of a Shudra – a book that was released in 2013.
On Tuesday, 17 October, an FIR was filed in Goa against Wagh and the publisher of the book, Hema Naik, under Section 293 (sale of obscene objects to young person) and Section 294 (obscene acts and words) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The book has upset not only the complainant Auda Viegas, but also Goa’s dominant Gaud Saraswat Brahmins. Here’s why the book has stirred a volatile debate four years after it was released.
Who is Vishnu Wagh and Why is He Under Fire?
Vishnu Surya Naik Wagh joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2011 after being a general secretary and spokesperson of the Goa Pradesh Congress for 14 years. A poet, writer, journalist, and dramatist, Wagh then became an MLA from North Goa’s St Andre Constituency.
On 15 August, Wagh’s anthology of poems was selected as the winner of the Goa Konkani Academy (GKA) Award in the poetry category. Soon after, social media users began criticising him, comparing his work to “pornography” and “filth”.
Consequently, the Manohar Parrikar-led Goa government cancelled all 32 undeclared culture and literature awards, including the one that Wagh was to receive. On 17 October, an FIR was filed against him for the way the book represents women and castes. Viegas, the woman who filed the complaint, said she always admired Wagh’s books, but felt disgraced after reading this one.
It not only portrays women in bad taste, but the book also speaks about castes, which is wrong. We have moved on from caste-based issues.Auda Viegas, complainant
The controversy began after the lone jury member at the GKA, Sanjiv Verenkar, took to social media to oppose the book’s entry. In an interview to The Indian Express, Verenkar said Wagh’s poems were “full of filthy words, abuses, vulgarity” which he hadn’t “read in any form of literature in (his) 58 years.”
A cup of pure milk requires only a drop of cyanide. His (Wagh’s) entire work was against the Brahmins. What is the intention today to write against them? These oppressions he speaks of are 200 years old, and society has moved on… I have myself counted 40 abusive words used against the upper castes in the book.Sanjiv Verenkar to The Indian Express
Wagh, an Open Critic of Caste Oppression
Wagh has been openly critical of the caste-oriented social order and right-wing politics. His literature has often reflected this contour of thought.
In his 1998 Marathi play ‘Tuka Abhang Abhang’, which was about the life of 17th century poet Tukaram, Wagh depicted him being murdered by a group of Brahmin priests. There is also a clear “us” and “them” binary in his poems. Here are the translations of two of his poems:
“It seems Parashuram fired an arrow,
Into the sea and it receded
Repeating this tale year in and year out
They cheated the Bahujan Samaj
Through this lie they wanted to establish
That this land was created by them
You sinners: if you were the first here
Then who were the Mahars, Bhandaris, Kharvis, Pagis,
Gawdas, Velips, Dhangars, Kunbis:
Who were they?
To make this land fertile
They gave their sweat and blood
They are us Sudhirs…”
“Our ancestors... Would speak to their face. Seeing this they began to fear... And they connived to make our ancestors dumb. They built temples, They installed idols, they set up the procedures for performing pujas... They learned how to write language and slowly, slowly they killed our language”
It was surprising for many, then, that he joined the BJP in 2011. Even as a member, he critiqued the policies of the party in the state.
A Divided Literary World
Wagh’s book and the controversy that has erupted from it has left the literary world to take polarised stands.
Noted writer Damodar Mauzo, commenting on Wagh’s poems, told Times of India that if “one attempts to understand this simmering revolt in his poems, he wouldn’t see anything immoral in his poems nor anything derogatory against women.”
Hema Naik, a Sahitya Akademi winner and the publisher of the book, sought to defend the book as the poet’s right to expression.
You can charge it with sections. But then, did you read all the 61 poems or just the ones that were pasted on social media and circulated out of context? A poet is a total of all the influences around him, and to bring life to his creativity, he is bound to borrow and express in the language he associates the subject. In this case, slapping charges of indecency to women is restricting the debate. The poems are much more in context, and speak of a caste divide. But then they are his expression and he should be allowed.Hema Naik to The Indian Express
On the other hand, senior activist Uday Bhembre, a Saraswat himself, characterised Sudirsukta as a “threat to the society.”
Even Sanjiv Verenkar, whose post triggered the controversy, said that he thinks the poems “have potential to stoke communal tension.”
Even as people continue to take sides, 52-year-old Wagh continues to remain immobile in a hospital following a stroke resulting in cerebral hypoxia.
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