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Former BJP MLA’s book on caste rocks Goa politics

The book — ‘Sudhirsukt’ (Hymns of a Shudra) — came out four years ago and was written by former BJP MLA Vishnu Surya Naik Wagh but first surfaced in the news a month ago with rumours that it was in line to get the state’s highest literary award.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2017 08:16 IST
Nida Khan
Nida Khan
Hindustan Times, Panaji
Goa politics,Goa,Shudra politics
Vishnu Surya Wagh who authored Sudhirsukt(HT File Photo)

The rest of India knows Goa for its scenic beaches, spectacular sunsets and roaring nightlife. But the tiny state is also currently being roiled by an unlikely literary controversy over a collection of poems that takes on the local caste elite.

The book — ‘Sudhirsukt’ (Hymns of a Shudra) — came out four years ago and was written by former BJP MLA Vishnu Surya Naik Wagh but first surfaced in the news a month ago with rumours that it was in line to get the state’s highest literary award.

Since then, the award – the prestigious Goa Konkani Awards – has been called off this year, an FIR has been filed against the critically ill author on charges of using derogatory language against women and top literary figures in the state have come out in support of Wagh.

Sudhirsukt has hit the headlines for three reasons – the description of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) community as exploiters, use of “abusive” words to describe caste elite women and the usage of a local language throughout the book, unlike the unadulterated Konkani language endorsed by the caste elite in the state.

His supporters say Wagh wrote nothing wrong and that his commentary through the poems constituted an important assertion against the GSB elite.

“There is not a single wrong thing written in the book. It is a beautiful piece of work, which gives a true narrative of the society. I have read all the poems and it is only then that I decided to publish this work,” said his publisher Hema Naik.

But why is it that a book published four years ago, and released by the chief minister, Manohar Parrikar, himself a GSB, sparking such a row now? The answer lies in the state’s history and caste dynamics.

Wagh belongs to the Bhandari caste, categorised as Other Backward Class (OBC) in the state, comprise about 16% of Goa’s population. Their support can make or break a political party.

A journalist, cartoonist and politician, Wagh is one of the few literary figures who openly spoke about caste oppression and took on the GSB community.

He was one of the writers who started a movement in Ponda to storm into the inner sanctums of temples that did not the entry of backward castes.

But his detractors don’t agree. Writer Sanjay Verekar, a member of the award jury, said he didn’t believe in caste but was against the book’s “vulgar language”. Verekar’s post on social media, announcing that Wagh was in line to get the award, had triggered the controversy.

“Freedom of expression is good. I am not against it. But why bring abusive language to the home of students, young people and women,” Verekar told HT.

Some women’s groups are also against Wagh and have backed the FIR against him. Auda Viegas, president of Bailancho Ekvott, said the poems were an affront to the dignity of women and a “character assassination”.

“I found derogatory remarks about women and therefore felt the need to come forward and complain about it,” she said.

Publisher Hema Naik said the cancellation of the awards by the government was a clear sign that they were worried about upsetting the dominant castes.

“Several complaints were lodged against me for publishing this book. What is there in it? The truth. Brahmans have enjoyed a coveted position in the society and have exploited the other backward castes,” Naik said.

The 52-year-old writer is bedridden after he suffered a massive heart attack last year. Wagh’s nephew, Kaustubh Naik, said those blaming the book did not read it properly.

“The derogatory language can be found at one only one instance in four poems. There is more to that writing than just abuses. It is an attempt by Wagh to democratise the Konkani language, which is otherwise very Brahmanical. The Konkani used by him is colloquial in nature. It takes in words from Portuguese, Marathi and several other slangs completely unlike the Konkani,” said Kaustubh, a performance studies student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The state government has distanced itself from the controversy. Chief minister Parrikar on Friday said his government had no role in the FIR registered on Tuesday. “Some people are trying to give it a different colour,” he said. No leader from the GSB community was willing to speak to HT on the matter.

But several other writers have backed Wagh.

“If one attempts to understand the simmering revolt in his poems, they won’t see anything immoral. He (Wagh) deserves an award and the cancellation of the awards is the most cowardly act the government could go ahead with,” said Damodar Mauzo, a noted writer. Others like Augusto Pinto are busy circulating translated version of the poems.

The Goa Konkani Academy has also maintained silence on the incident. “The Academy stands defamed with this move. It is a complete loss to the academy. It is something which shouldn’t have happened,” said former president Madhav Borkkar.

First Published: Oct 22, 2017 08:15 IST