When the organisers of a prestigious Marathi literary meet on January 6 withdrew an invitation to noted author Nayantara Sahgal to inaugurate the event after threats by workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, they explained that the decision had been made to “avoid any untoward incident and in view of the controversy that has cropped up against her name”.

The three-day Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, in Yavatmal town in eastern Maharashtra, ends on Sunday.

But Sripad Joshi, who on Wednesday resigned as president of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Mahamandal, which organises the sammelan, told Scroll.in that threats from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena were not the primary reason for Sahgal’s invitation being rescinded. The decision was taken for financial reasons, Joshi claimed, explaining that the organisers were worried that much of the event’s funding would be withdrawn if Sahgal were to attend.

Joshi’s claim was supported by Manohar Mhaisalkar, president of the Yavatmal Sahitya Sangh, an organisation that is part of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Mahamandal. Mhaiskalkar said that BJP Minister of State for Energy Madan Yerawar, who is the chairman of the event’s reception committee, was unhappy about Sahgal’s invitation because of their differing political ideologies. Yerawar had threatened to withdraw as a patron of the event if she inaugurated it, Mhaisalkar said.

Funding the meet

The literary meet has usually received a grant of Rs 25 lakh from the Maharashtra government. This year, the sum was raised to Rs 50 lakh. However, private fundraising is essential for covering expenses.

Apart from the Rs 50 lakh grant, Yerawar “had procured approximately Rs 1.5 crore for the event”, Mhaisalkar said. “The event could not have taken place without the help of a patron.”

Yerawar has denied the claim. “I have already given my clarification for the last few days,” he said. “I am just the president of the welcome committee, only local arrangement is in our hands. It is not our job to dictate who inaugurates the event.”

Confirming that he acted as the patron for the event, Yerawar, who is guardian minister for Yavatmal, said his role is “social not political”.

‘Climate would have been vitiated’

Sripad Joshi said that he thought that the organisers had used the threat by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena workers as an excuse to withdraw the invitation to Sahgal. He noted that shortly after the invitation had been withdrawn, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray expressed regret for his workers’s actions, indicating that keeping Sahgal away was not a component of the party’s larger agenda. The threat “must have been a manufactured, made-to-order threat to create a situation to get the invitation cancelled,” Joshi surmised.

Joshi said he had resigned because as the person who had formally asked Sahgal to attend, he bore primary responsbility for the retraction of the invitation. He clarified that the decision to invite Sahgal was “not individual but institutional”. It was the result of a “consensus evolved through process”, he added.

He had earlier told The Indian Express that the Mahamandal had nothing to do with invitation being revoked. That was done by the local organisers, the Vidarbha Sahitya Sangh and the Dr VB Kolte Sanshodhan Kendra ani Vachanalay, he said.

“When everybody shirks responsibility, then it is the person at the helm of affairs who should do it and end the stalemate,” he said, explaining why he resigned. “The Sammelan would have been the first casualty, other casualties would have been the institutions. The climate would have been further vitiated.”

Joshi, who views his resignation as an act of protest against censorship, added: “Forces were conspiring to demolish the image and reputation of a non-guilty person.”

Strong links to state

Sahgal has attracted criticism from Hindutva supporters ever since she became one of the most prominent faces of the “award wapsi” campaign in 2015. Sahgal had returned her Sahitya Akademi award in protest against claims that intolerance was rising in India, attacks on the right to dissent and the Sahitya Akademi’s silence about attacks on writers and rationalists. She has remained a vocal critic of Hindutva politics and the BJP government.

She said the organisers were aware of her writings and views when they invited her. A copy of the letter sent to Sahgal, accessed by Scroll.in, does not mentioned any reason for her invitation being rescinded.

While the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena workers had allegedly said that Marathi writers should be given priority for the literary meet, Joshi said the reason for inviting the 91-year-old author was her strong connection with Maharashtra. “She is the daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Ranjit Pandit, a great intellectual and freedom fighter from Maharashtra,” he said. “She is also from the family of Shankar Pandit, who was a close associate of Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, the great reformist who pioneered this Sammelan in 1878.”

In a last-minute scramble to replace Sahgal, the organisers decided to invite widowed farmer Vaishali Sudhakar Yede to inaugurate the literary event, The Hindustan Times reported. Yede, 28, is from Rajur village in drought-afflicted Yavatmal district and lives with her two sons after her husband committed suicide in 2011 because of debt.

For many, however, the withdrawal of Sahgal’s invitation was unacceptable. Several prominent Marathi writers called for a boycott of the event and condemned the decision of the organisers.

Joshi, however, expressed disappointment about the boycott, saying he had appealed many writers to attend and make their displeasure known, to “use the dais, to claim it as our Sammelan for free expression”.

“This threat has always existed since the beginning of culture,” he said. “Politics existed, exploitation existed, suppression and hegemony also existed. In the present, its gravity is felt more.”