Pondy Lit Fest: Lack of Diverse Opinions Makes the Event Dubious

The three-day fest scheduled for August 17 should be viewed in the context of the right-wing's historical attempts to disturb social harmony of Pondicherry.

As a child, when my father and I passed by Rue Desbassyns de Richemond in Pondicherry, I would ask him, “Who are these people papa?” My question was just met with silence. I was always puzzled by the sight of elderly men wearing khaki shorts and cut banians, doing strange exercises with lathis. “Who are they? What are they doing in that small street behind Shri Aurobindo’s Ashram situated in the White Town?” I always wondered.

I am from a generation where parents thought it was unnecessary to explain everything to their children. Perhaps they had a high opinion of their offspring and thought they would find their own answers. I never knew that these elderly men were from a secret organisation until after the Babri Masjid was demolished.

The church incident

When the Babri Masjid was destroyed, some local zealots belonging to the Hindu Munnani organisation wanted the Immaculate Conception Cathedral on Mission Street to also be brought down. According to them, the church – popularly called Samba Kovil – was erected on the site of the Vedapuri Isvaran Kovil (Shiva temple) and should face the same fate as the Babri Masjid.

One could raise serious doubts about the veracity of this allegation, but the right wing groups do not have the backing of authentic historians or intellectuals in their organisations. In the writings of missionaries François Bertrand and Adrien Launay, the history of the cathedral is easily traced. The current church is the fourth one built by the Jesuits. The first, erected in 1691, was on the site occupied today by the offices of the Paul VI Social Center, south of the cathedral’s current location. It was demolished by the Dutch in 1693. The second church, probably built in a hurry between 1702 and 1705, fell into ruin. It was replaced by the third, built from 1728 to 1736, next to the temple Vedapuri Isvaran. This was demolished by the English in 1761 during the Seven Years War. When the French regained control of the colony, the Jesuits began constructing a church in 1770 in the same location. Because work progressed slowly, a temporary chapel was built on the site of the destroyed temple. This chapel was probably in service for twenty years, before being replaced by the current church. The work begun by the Jesuits was completed by the Paris Foreign Missions in 1791.

The Immaculate Conception Church in Pondicherry. Credit: BishkekRocks/Wikimedaa Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, the Tamil name of the cathedral – Samba Kovil – is the reason behind the conspiracy theory. The Hindu Munnani claims that this name is derived from either Shiva or Swayambu Lingam (the revealed lingam). Thus, Rama Gopalan, a former RSS pracharak who founded the organisation, claims that the cathedral is on the site of a temple. In reality, the name Samba is not used to denominate Shiva or any other Hindu deity. It is a distortion of Saint Paul. The Jesuits were indeed called priests of Saint Paul, after their college in Goa. Saint Paul transformed into “Sampavoulou” or “Sambavoulou”. Moreover, the old plans locate both buildings accurately on several maps. The temple of Vedapuri Isvaran was at the current site of the Presses de la Mission, but it encroached on the Rue de la Cathédrale, which was then not traced.

On February 8, 1994, two Hindu Munnani members entered the church in search of the “lost lingam”. They met Father Adaikalasamy and informed him that they would perform a deeparadhana outside the church. The duo, Visvalingam and Babu Singh, were arrested. Sensing growing threat to social harmony, the Centre sent one battalion of Rapid Action Force, which was followed by the Central Industry Security Force to prevent an attack on the church.

The ongoing invasion

Pondicherry is a strange place in the vastness of this complex country. It feels like an isolated island in the middle of a tumultuous ocean. In this small and sleepy town, the social harmony is not disturbed. War, riot or social unrest, nothing seems to threaten the social harmony that has been prevailing for centuries. The last time I had witnessed sheer violence in the city was when Tamil Nadu tried to merge Pondicherry into it in the early 1980s under the Janata government.

In 2016, when the Trojan horse entered Raj Nivas (governor’s residence), I had a feeling of déja vu. I sensed that troubles were not far away. Unable to enter through the main door in Tamil Nadu, the Trojan horse has entered through the small window of Pondicherry. It is now gamboling freely, trying to make way for the BJP in the next election.

What the right-wing organisations could not achieve through religion in 1994, the BJP is now trying to conquer through culture. I was so overwhelmed when I saw a post about Pondy Lit Fest on Facebook. Images of books, writers, storytellers and intellectuals flashed through my mind. “Finally, there is going to be a literary festival in Pondicherry! The South Indian cultural hub had been lacking an event of this caliber,” I thought. My enthusiasm faded as soon as I checked the programme.

The lineup is filled with pseudo-intellectuals, wannabe writers and faux historians. Perhaps the bad choices can be attributed to the amateurism of the organisers, but what struck me was that a majority of the participants were all BJP supporters. So be it. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall said: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” They have the right to express their views. But there should be other participants to bring in diverse opinions, whose absence makes the literary event dubious.

However, the saddest part of this saga is that for the first edition of Pondicherry’s literary festival, no local authors, writers or intellectuals have been invited. It is as if there is no erudition or culture in south India. No Tamil writers have been invited. Pondicherry is home to great writers like Pranpachan, Ki Ra, P. Raja, Madame Madana Kalyani and Bharat Vasanthan, just to name a few.

Locals dissatisified

Many locals have been expressing their unease and apprehension on social media. Realising the growing dissatisfaction, the organisers are buckling under pressure. It seems that the local organiser’s name has been used as a front for a bigger organisation that obviously had a BJP agenda.

Finally, the local organiser Lalit Verma, who is also one of the curators of the festival, has managed to exasperate two communities in Pondicherry. First, the French people. Most of them are unhappy that the Alliance Française, of which Verma is the president, has been hauled into this mess. An important fact is that EFEO (Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient) refused to participate in this masquerade. Second, the Aurobindo ashramites have also distanced themselves, because Aurobindo’s quote “Bharat Shakti” has been used as the theme for this festival which clearly has a Hindutva agenda.

Ari Gautier is a novelist who writes mostly about Pondicherry.