Ashok Vajpeyi’s Nehru lecture was all about Modi. And the state of ‘free’ institutions

ashok vajpeyi’s nehru lecture was all about modi. and the state of ‘free’ institutions

Ashok Vajpeyi’s Nehru lecture was all about Modi. And the state of ‘free’ institutions

New Delhi: A lecture about Nehru these days easily turns into an anti-Modi session and the decline of institutions.

Today, Sahitya Akademi conducts seminars on the issue of cleanliness; even Indira Gandhi did not have the courage to get her 20-point program publicised through the Akademi during the Emergency, said 82-year-old poet and former bureaucrat Ashok Vajpeyi at Jawahar Bhawan in Delhi recently.

Professors, university students and people from the NGO sector showed up at Jawahar Bhawan to hear Vajpeyi’s lecture on Nehru and Culture, part of the Nehru Dialogues series being organised by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. The series has been going on since the last one year and includes seminars and lectures on different subjects.

“Institutions related to culture are collapsing,” said Vajpeyi, adding that they are being used to propagate Hindutva. Our tradition has been of questioning, but now there is no culture of questioning, he said Vajpeyi.

The former bureaucrat credited Nehru for creating the framework of folk culture in India, who tried to bring cultural literacy in the country. “There is a systematic attempt to increase widespread cultural illiteracy. And culture is being made a tool of politics, something Nehru never did. We are living in an adhkachra (half-baked) democracy.”

During his hour-long lecture, he attacked the Modi government many times in his familiar sarcastic style, which brought smiles on the faces of the listeners.

Vajpeyi admitted in the hall full of students that he lives in a state of confusion. “I am in between what I want and what is happening. Maybe this is my delusion,” he said.

In 2015, following the increasing violence in the country and the killing of several progressive writers, Vajpeyi had returned his Sahitya Akademi Award. “The Sahitya Akademi which does not organize condolence meetings on the murder of intellectuals, organizes programs on cleanliness,” he said without naming Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Gauri Lankesh, who were killed over the past decade.

Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand, who was moderating the event, said before the lecture that the free space for dialogue in universities is collapsing. “Amidst all this noise, it is important to talk on important topics of our time. This is a completely open place. From here people can go with questions in their mind and it is not at all necessary that everyone should agree,” he said.

Nehru and culture

Taking a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vajpeyi said that Nehru is daily condemned in front of today’s revered leader (Modi). But the poet recalled the time in the 1960s when he had seen Nehru apologise for arriving a few minutes late to an event.

As a poet and creative personality, the thing that most impresses Vajpeyi about Nehru was his understanding of culture. “Nehru’s time was the time of intellectual richness of politics and for him politics was a cultural apocalypse, which was made up of a sense of history, sense of Gandhi, sense born out of freedom struggle, sense of modernity and sense of world,” said Vajpayee.

The audiences were amused to learn about Nehru’s appreciation of culture, his idea of India and federalism and the metaphors used by India’s first prime minister in his writing—his mentioned of Ganga in Discovery of India.

But Vajpeyi expressed disappointment that the cultural diversity which Nehru had accepted is being destroyed today. “Our best poetry has been written in the Bhakti period but the present government has maligned the word Bhakti. Nehru was the only politician of his era who was taking initiative in the field of culture and knowledge,” he said.

Vajpeyi said that Nehru was also very conscious about the autonomy of institutions. Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi was facing a severe financial crisis when Nehru helped him financially through Sahitya Akademi. “Nehru was the President of the Sahitya Akademi at that time but still he wrote a letter to the secretary for this. He could have taken the decision himself but he respected the autonomy,” Vajpayee recounted.

Attacking the Modi government, Vajpeyi said that the government which sends ED cannot be one that protects freedom. “Nehru gained popularity by promoting the tradition of questioning, his popularity was not gained from loyalty. Popularity in India today is doubtful. We should be suspicious of whatever is popular,” he said.

This politically charged lecture ended with a political statement when Apoorvanand raised the issue of Palestine-Israel war and asked people to observe a minute of silence for those killed in Palestine.

Cultural Nationalism

Vajpeyi considers Nehru’s cultural vision to be a combination of knowledge, science and arts.

“Today’s cultural nationalism talks about creating ‘others’ on the basis of communalism and religion every day. The country has gone as far away from Nehru’s India as it could,” he said.

Even if those listening to Vajpeyi were not at all fans of Nehru, they were implementing Nehru’s idea — asking questions. One of the students asked why Nehru amended Article 19 when he advocated for freedom of expression.

According to Vajpeyi, ultimate freedom is not found in any constitution of the world. “So how can it be in the Constitution of India? There are reasons to limit freedom but it is important to see how politics uses it,” he said.

Another student asked why it is only Nehru the PM who is discussed and not Nehru the freedom freedom fighter. “Who bothers to talk about the freedom movement at all,” the poet said.

The hall erupted in laughter.

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