Emergency Was Dictatorship but Today It’s Worse: Nayantara Sahgal

“All dissent and debate is banned. This is what I am opposing,” says Sahitya Akademi awardee Nayantara Sahgal. 

Updated08 Jan 2019, 04:20 PM IST
5 min read

In a twist of irony, Sahitya Akademi Award Winner Nayantara Sahgal was disinvited from the 92nd Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, a literature festival she was slated to inaugurate. Her crime? An attempt to give a speech in which she lampooned the state of affairs in India at this moment, particularly Hindutva, and wanting to talk about the importance of dissent in a democracy.

Listen to Nayantara Sahgal here.

Talking to The Quint, Sahgal said that the cancellation of her invite appeared to be on the basis of a “political request”.

We have heard in the papers that even if the invitation would be extended again, you’re not willing to consider it.

Well, that’s a hypothetical question because it’s not going to be extended again. Today is already the 8th, I was supposed to leave for Mumbai on the 10th and inaugurate the function on the 11th, so there is no question of it being reissued. Now I’ve already said that since the organisers have cancelled it, there is no question of me going.

What, in your opinion, went on behind the scenes?

Well obviously, political requests, or what else could it be? I’m not very surprised because this is happening time and again all over India. The other day, a history conference was cancelled in Maharashtra and before that TM Krishna’s concert (the great Carnatic singer) in Delhi was cancelled, and Ramachandra Guha and Gopal Gandhi’s function was cancelled. This is going on and I’m not very surprised.

The interesting bit here is that it was actually an MNS supporter who had issued a threat of sorts which is why the organisation cancelled it or at least that is what the organisers would have us believe – that it was an MNS guy.

We don’t know if that was the reason or the cover for the real reason. I don’t know.

Mr Raj Thackeray has admitted that it was indeed their party worker and he has apologised and said that he extends his support to you.

Yes I read that. It obviously was not that organisation so it must have been some political pressure.

We also read the speech you were going to deliver on the 11th at this literary meet where you have spoken very strongly about the growing intolerance in the country. By not allowing you to make that speech, do you think it has exemplified the whole thing?

I want to make it clear that I am not against any individual or any government. You know if they say I’m against the BJP or the Prime Minister, it is not true. I’m not against any one individual or party. I have opposed only the idea, that freedom should not be allowed, all dissent and debate is banned – this is what I am opposing and I have also opposed it at the time of a Congress government in 1975. Although, the Prime Minister was my cousin Indira Gandhi, I still opposed it because I will never agree to a situation in my country where dissent and debate are banned and where only one idea has to be everybody’s.

I’m so glad you have mentioned Indira Gandhi and the Emergency here because some of the strongest critiques came from you and your mother and people seemed to have forgotten that.

They forget and then they talk nonsense. If they remembered they would know I have strongly opposed this kind of situation always when it has arisen. This is not the first time.

Are you also suggesting that today the kind of intolerance we see is reminiscent of the Emergency era?

It’s worse. The Emergency was very clearly a dictatorship where the Constitution was amended to deprive us of our right to life and liberty. But today, all this is happening under a democratic government, it is worse. So in a way, it’s worse. Such things should not happen in a democracy.

Do you feel that the Prime Minister who is at the helm of the affairs is deliberately not doing anything to check this growing intolerance?

As I said, I’m not targeting any party or individual, including the Prime Minister. I have nothing against these people personally. In fact, I wish I could meet them and speak to them, we could have a free discussion on these matters. I think that would be the best way to handle this situation. I’m not saying, “Why is the Prime Minister not speaking?” I’m very sorry that he is not speaking. But after all, it is his agenda and how can he speak against it? It is his party’s agenda that this is a Hindu country and nobody else matters. How can we expect him to speak against that?

Do you find it interesting that some of your most animated supporters are from the Congress party that you have critiqued quite strongly in the past? Do you find yourself in the middle of this bizarre political opera, as it were?

No, I think I have never been a member of any political party ever and I never want to be in politics myself. Except for the period of Emergency, I have voted for Congress. Congress is my family background. From its early beginnings my parents fought under Mahatma Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru was a Congressmen. So I am with the Congress as being the best in the sense of having established a modern society in India under its first three governments under Nehru, Ambedkar and other distinguished colleagues –Sardar Patel etcetera. I am with the Congress in the stance they have taken against the times we are living in and the ideas we are promoting.

Ram Guha responded to this controversy by saying that this Maharashtra is not the Maharashtra of Ambedkar but the Maharashtra of Nathuram Godse. What do you have to say to that?

Yes, I think Ram Guha is right. There is an element now that is trying to suppress the great Maharashtra that has stood for reform, building the front line for reform. My own family has been connected with those people, my grand uncle Shankar Pandurang Pandit was a close friend of Ranade. That was the Maharashtra the whole country followed at the time. It is regretful that today it is ruled by another idea. But I can see that the true Maharashtra is going strong because I’ve had huge support from Marathi Rajyas. They have even threatened to boycott the entire Sammelan so I’m very proud of Marathi Rajyas that they have stood up for freedom in this way.

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Published: 08 Jan 2019, 12:12 PM IST
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