Growing demand to restore award to book by former ‘Maoist’ Kobad Ghandy

The English edition has been an Amazon bestseller and the Marathi version was chosen for the award among 33 entries. Marathi litterateurs are up in arms, returning their own awards in protest

Growing demand to restore award to book by former ‘Maoist’ Kobad Ghandy

Sujata Anandan

Former Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy shrugged off the controversy after the Maharashtra government withdrew the award, after announcing it and congratulating him and the translator. But he is outraged at the unfair treatment meted out to the Marathi translator, Anagha Lele, of his book Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir (Roli Books) first published in English. The Marathi edition has been published by Lokwangmay Gruha.

The Eknath Shinde government is at the receiving end of  growing outrage after it hastily withdrew the award following social media posts questioned the state’s highest literary award to a ‘former’ jailed Maoist accused of killing people. Ghandy denies the charges and points out that the charges did not hold in court.

The book was chosen by a Scrutiny Committee set up by the government’s Marathi language department under the aegis of the Yashwantrao Chavan annual literary awards for its Loktirth Laxmanshastri Joshi Prize among 33 entries this year. Usually there are 35 nominations, but they fell short by two for the 2021 awards.

So it is rather convenient to blame the selection of the book for the award on the Uddhav Thackeray government which had set up the scrutiny committee that read through all the 33 books before choosing Fractured Freedom which has been a best seller on Amazon ever since it was released in March 2021.  The awards were, however, finalised and announced this year by the Eknath Shinde government, with languages minister Deepak Kesarkar even congratulating all the award winners.

The Kannada translation of Ghandy's book
The Kannada translation of Ghandy's book

Now Kesarkar has not only withdrawn the award but also dissolved the scrutiny committee and tried to wriggle out of the controversy saying the committee did not discuss the final awards with the government. Unexplained is the fact that committees are set up precisely to make informed independent decisions but even if the government wanted to control the awards, it was found sleeping on the job.

Speaking to National Herald, Ghandy points out, “The award was for a book in Marathi. And even before this award was announced, I was told by many in the Marathi literary field that it was a superb translation that has outdone the original book in English. It reads almost like an original Marathi book. They should have looked at the literary quality instead of my history. But if they wanted to avoid giving it any recognition, they could simply have junked the book from the awards list before the announcement. This way they have done a great injustice to the translator.”

Lele, a former engineer, is a professional commercial translator who, however, has only one translation of a novel to her repertoire. This is her first substantial translation and she is highly upset that the award should have been withdrawn merely because of social media outrage.

“Those who gave the award read through all the books entered for the award. Only after that did they choose Fractured Freedom for the top prize. Those outraging on social media have not read the book at all. How can a committee of literary intellectuals be insulted, and their hard work trashed merely because someone on social media finds the award, and not necessarily the book, objectionable?” she asks.

The first tweet against the award was posted by Legal Rights Observatory, an organisation associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and, predictably, picked up and amplified by the usual right-wing suspects.  After its knee jerk reaction, however, the government has landed itself into even more trouble.

Sharad Baviskar, professor at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies of the School for Languages and Culture at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who won the Laxmibai Tilak Prize for his autobiography Bhura has turned down the award saying it is a highly fascist act by the Maharashtra government. He said it is a people’s award given by an expert committee and he wished to know who had arbitrarily withdrawn the award to Kobad Ghandy’s book.

To make it worse, neither the author nor the translator or publisher was informed of the withdrawal of the award. They got to know through a general resolution published on the government website. “I will accept my award if the government restores the award to Fractured Freedom,” added Baviskar.

Another noted Marathi writer Anand Karandikar whose book Vaicharik  Ghusalan  won an award in the  general literature category also turned it down, saying taking back Lele’s  award is “gagging freedom of thought and expression”.

The controversy seems to have snowballed with well-known Marathi writer Pragya Daya Pawar and one other member resigning from the state literature and culture committee in protest. 

According to Lele, there is nothing objectionable in Ghandy’s book which merely recounts his trials and tribulations in prison and some aspects of his life before he became an activist.

“Before I undertook the translation, I read it minutely and found there was nothing in the book that militated against national interest. The award meant a lot to me. It is sad that because of some opinion on Twitter, the work of so many experts should have been negated. I think it is most unfortunate that a book doing well for the past two years and an author who has received accolades for the work should be so insulted.”

Now even former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar has slammed the government for infusing politics into literature and described  the situation in Maharashtra like an Emergency.

Ghandy’s book has already been translated and published in Kannada. Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam editions are in the pipeline with translators in many other languages expressing an interest.

Ghandy was a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist) and spent ten years in the Nagpur Central Jail for his alleged Naxal activities. He was accused of killing many people including policemen.

A student of Doon School in Dehradun and later the London School of Economics, the apparent racism in British society in the 1960s and 1970s drew him towards Leftist ideology and along with his wife, the late Anuradha Ghandy, he worked in the area of justice to Dalits around Nagpur and Vidarbha for several decades. 

Why the Maharashtra government now seems to be highly embarrassed by the award of its literary prize to Ghandy is also tied to the Bhima Koregaon case-  in which every one of those jailed activists have been falsely accused of being Naxals and many of them have worked for tribal and Dalit rights.  

Soon after the release of his book in March 2021, Ghandy was expelled from the People’s War faction of the CPI (ML)  for allegedly turning to spiritualism and denying he was ever a member of its politburo.

Though the book recounts how he turned to the revolutionary cause and of his radical politics before being sent to prison, the CPI(ML) was not impressed. It issued a press release last year at the time of Ghandy’s expulsion, accusing him of denying his roots despite having “chosen the Naxalbari way for over 50 years” and previously having worked as Central Committee member of the People’s War Group of the CPI(ML) and having been its Maharashtra unit leader.

Ghandy in response had spoken to the media expressing his shock at the CPI(ML) press release and his statements then were widely reported both by newspapers and news websites.

For once Marathi social media is not impressed by the Shinde government passing on the blame for the faux pas to the MVA. Many have said even if the MVA had short listed the names, it was the duty of the Shinde government to scrutinise that list before declaring the award. They might have avoided a needless controversy. 

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