It is profoundly sad that following threats, the organizers of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan have capitulated and chosen to withdraw the invitation to Nayantara Sahgal, who was to address the sammelan, or convention, in Yavatmal on 11 January.

That Sahgal is Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece is incidental. More pertinently, her father Ranjit Pandit was Marathi, a scholar of Sanskrit, making Sahgal Maharashtra’s daughter. Since the early 1960s, in novels and other works of non-fiction, Sahgal has offered a glimpse into India’s political life. There is also her steadfast, consistent commitment to justice—an opponent of the Emergency, she headed the Delhi unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties when it co-published Who Are The Guilty?, the investigative report that blamed the nascent Rajiv Gandhi administration for its acts and complicity during the massacre of Sikhs in 1984. More recently, she was among the earliest to return a Sahitya Akademi Award over the Akademi’s failure to respond promptly when an Akademi laureate, the noted Kannada writer M.M. Kalburgi, was murdered.

The sammelan organizers were warned of disruption if Sahgal spoke. She was going to speak about rising intolerance. Instead of defending her (and their) freedom, they surrendered, proving her point. Acknowledging that one of his party members had opposed Sahgal, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray distanced himself, saying that Sahgal was welcome and he regretted the inconvenience caused and apologized. The government reacted lamely, saying that it had no role in the matter, though chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is to speak at the event. His timidity is in marked contrast to the firm response of his predecessor, Prithviraj Chavan, who in 2011 ignored calls from within his own party, the Congress, to ban Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India (Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, had already banned Lelyveld’s book). The sammelan’s caution is understandable, given the government’s equivocation. Political thuggery in Maharashtra hasn’t always been punished. In 2017, a Pune sessions court acquitted 68 people of the Sambhaji Brigade who were accused of ransacking the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in 2004, because the American academic James Laine had consulted documents there while researching his book on Shivaji. Earlier in 2000, people claiming to represent Dalit interests physically attacked Arun Shourie, the then minister of state for planning and divestment, at a Mumbai event.

Maharashtra’s sahitya sammelans have been lively political affairs. In 1975, Durga Bhagwat, who was elected chair of the sammelan in Karad, made withering criticism of the Emergency in the presence of cabinet minister Yashwantrao Chavan, making him squirm. Bhagwat was soon arrested. Around the same time, the poet Mangesh Padgaonkar wrote his scathingly sarcastic poem, Salaam, about the pusillanimity of the intellectual class that cravenly bowed to power. Two years later in Pune, at the first sammelan after the Emergency, Bhagwat criticized the invitation to the then Goa chief minister Shashikala Kakodkar, saying literary meets should not invite politicians nor accept money from them (the Goa government had contributed 40,000 towards the sammelan). However, the tables turned. Instead of supporting Bhagwat, a committee at the sammelan passed a resolution criticizing her. The sammelan’s chair that year was P.B. Bhave, a right-leaning author who had praised Hitler and justified the caste system in an interview.

At the 1999 sammelan in Mumbai, presaging the cultural wars of our time, the sammelan chair, poet Vasant Bapat, criticized the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government for “stifling freedom of thought and expression". Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray responded the next day in his newspaper, Saamana, saying that before criticizing the government, the writers should return the 25 lakh the state government had granted for the sammelan. Bapat said the money was the taxpayers’, not Thackeray’s or the Shiv Sena’s. Other writers backed Bapat. Even the feeble have the courage to pull down autocrats, Bapat said. “Even if these littérateurs are hit with chappals, the chappals may tear, but they will remain the same," Thackeray caustically replied. A decade later, the Akhil Bharatiya Varkari Mandal, a religious movement in Maharashtra worshipping Vitthal or Vithoba, a form of Krishna, succeeded in getting author Anand Yadav to resign as the chair of the sammelan in Mahabaleshwar because he had written a book on Tukaram in which he had described the saint poet as mischievous and playful. In 2016 in Pimpri-Chinchwad, the poet Gulzar praised writers for speaking truth to power, subtly praising Sahgal and others who had returned their awards to the Sahitya Akademi. Yet now the sammelan lacks the courage to uphold its tradition of independence and the grace to stand by its decision to invite Sahgal.

Sahgal won’t be speaking on 11 January. More than 40 Marathi writers and artists have criticized the organizers and some are boycotting the sammelan, reminding us that the spirit of Bapat, Bhagwat, and Padgaonkar thrives, as they seek to reclaim the state’s liberal traditions.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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