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A new head for the Akademi

Print edition : Mar 14, 2003 T+T-

The election of Gopichand Narang as president of the Sahitya Akademi gives rise to apprehensions that the Bharatiya Janata Party may set the agenda for the institution.

ELECTIONS can be murky business. And never was this more apparent than in the recent election of the president of the Sahitya Akademi. Projected as a tussle between Hindu fundamentalism and left-leaning writers who have for long been at the helm of affairs at the Akademi, the contest took on clear political overtones.

Gopichand Narang, former vice-president of the Akademi, who won the election on February 17 by a decisive margin of 18 votes, was accused of being propped up by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to assault the autonomy of the Akademi.

Pitted against him as the defender of the leftist faith was Jnanpith Award winner Mahashweta Devi, who has written over a hundred novels and devoted a lifetime to the cause of tribal people and other historically disadvantaged groups.

The two-month-long electoral battle was compounded by Bharatiya Janata Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu's letter to Culture Minister Jagmohan urging him to cleanse the various Akademies of all leftist influence. Marked by media overkill and aggressive campaigning, the election was pitched almost in terms of a morality play, a battle for the political soul of India's premier academy of letters.

Reacting to the results, Mahashweta Devi took a stoic stand: "We have to accept the mandate, just as we had to accept the results of the Gujarat State Assembly elections." The 78-year-old writer's campaign was conducted by her supporters, including Hindi poets Namwar Singh and Ashok Vajpeyi, who held a series of press conferences arguing that Narang's election would hand over the Akademi on a platter to right-wing rabble-rousers.

Gopichand Narang scoffed at the charges claiming that he was `a socialist to the core'. He said that while he had friends and supporters in all camps, he was not blinkered by any overt ideological persuasion. He defended his secular credentials by pointing out that he teaches Urdu at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University, has more than 56 works to his credit, and has won the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Excellence in promoting secular values. "Hindustani is the language of our composite heritage, the tongue of Faiz and Firaq," he asserted. His writing, he claimed, never compromised that principle, adding that "all writing is anti-establishment".

He chose to view the controversy as motivated by the internal politics of the prominent Hindi-Urdu lobby in the Akademi. He said that the `unholy alliance' of Ashok Vajpeyi and Namwar Singh was responsible for the ruckus over the election, and that they were manipulating Mahashweta Devi for the success of their own personal agendas. He pointed out that they were hardly comrades-in-arms; when Ashok Vajpeyi contested the previous election, Namwar Singh had been instrumental in sabotaging his cause, he said. "Thank God that the voters are writers with minds of their own, and cannot be manipulated that easily," Gopichand Narang added.

After the results were announced, Malayalam novelist M.T. Vasudevan Nair stepped out of the contest for vice-president, making way for the Bengali litterateur Sunil Gangopadyay. He was non-committal about his withdrawal, stating that he decided to contest for vice-president only at the express request of Mahashweta Devi, and since she was defeated, he did not see any point in vying for the post. He claimed that as he was in Kerala he was not involved in the campaign for Mahashweta Devi's candidature, and had no idea about the tension surrounding the contest or the ideological issues at stake.

However, other writers such as Rajendra Yadav and Kedar Nath Singh were more explicit about their disappointment with the verdict. Kedar Nath Singh said that that a writer of the stature and integrity of Mahashweta Devi was rejected was "shocking" and was a "harsh comment on the entire set-up of the Akademi". He pointed out that she was deeply associated with "the living literary tradition", was an "original, powerful voice" and was therefore best suited to preside over the institution.

The long-running tussle between writers and critics was also clearly visible. The fact that Narang is not a creative writer was the running theme of the campaign.

Most observers seem to agree that excessive politicising of the event by Mahashweta Devi's supporters appears to have proved counter-productive.

Nirmal Verma, who dissociates himself from both camps, pointed out that the election was not based on issues but on personalities. He went on to say that the results were not a statement on Mahashweta Devi's undeniable stature as a writer and an activist, but on her effectiveness as an administrator. She was perceived as being too involved with her cause to devote really her energies to the running of a literary institution. According to an insider at the Akademi, projecting her as one who could save the Akademi from the clutches of Hindu fundamentalism was rejected by many members. Instead, they might have done better to convince the members of her capacity to govern the Akademi with dedication, despite her other preoccupations in Kolkata.

However, the vital question remains - is the Akademi's independence under siege? The constitution of the Sahitya Akademi, drafted by personalities such as Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, enshrines the freedom of writers as its life-force. With an august general council comprising writers and academics representing 22 languages and diverse ideological positions, it has affirmed its free thinking and autonomy through the democratic process of electing its own authorities.

Venkiah Naidu's aggressive stand has fuelled anxieties that the BJP might set the agenda for the Akademis (the Sahitya Akademi, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi) the same way that it appropriated cultural and educational institutions such as the Indian Council for Historical Research.

However, the Culture Ministry insisted that these fears were not based on substance, and that there was no move to alter the constitutional running of the institution. Akademi secretary K. Satchidanandan backed up this claim by pointing out that he had not received any coercive communication from the government, and that the election was conducted without any interference.

In fact, when the Haksar Committee, which was set up to look into the governance of the Akademis, recommended that the presidents of these institutions be nominated by the government instead of being elected by the general council, the Sahitya Akademi was the only institution to reject the move. Gopichand Narang, who was then on the executive board, claims credit for adopting that stand.

As Satchidanandan explains, the constitution defends its autonomy through a series of checks and balances. The guidelines for the advisory committee and the executive board, as well as the procedure by which the general council is chosen, would rule out any possibilities of arbitrary governance, he said, and added that he had not received any communication that considered altering the processes laid down by the constitution.

The government nominates only five members, out of which three are ex-officio and refrain from voting. Even if the president wanted to steer the Akademi rightwards, it would be very difficult to control and manipulate the functioning of the writer's council, he pointed out.

However, the dissenting writers are far from convinced. Kedar Nath Singh expressed his reservations against the entire process. He suggested that may be it was time to recast the constituencies from which the members were chosen. For example, while the rules dictated choosing a certain number of members from literary institutions to the general council, several of these institutions, according to him, existed only on paper.

Given the general atmosphere of mistrust and tension, Gopichand Narang's presidential term had a shaky start. Trouble began early with a squabble over the Tamil language representative on the executive board and one of the contenders alleging that Narang was the most unscrupulous president in the Akademi's history. Protecting the independence and integrity of the Akademi and staying clear of political manipulation is, then, the crucial battle for a president who is out to prove his scruples.