Mired in several controversies, India’s oldest and once the most prestigious body for the promotion of Hindi language, script and literature, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, needs some urgent measures for its revival. The Sabha, registered as a Society under the law, is bitterly divided between two factions that make respective claims over the institution and term each other illegal.
The case is pending in court for over five years, because the Allahabad High Court has questioned their claims and disputed the elections they held to the institute’s top body.
Incidentally, the Sabha is located in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, and has among the largest collections of rare Hindi manuscripts and historical works. And yet, as several writers point out, its rich library and publication department have been decaying for the last two decades, and the Sabha is facing extinction.
In fact, as early as in the 1990s, the Union government had considered taking over the Sabha and declaring it an Institute of National Importance. A decade later, a number of renowned academics wrote an open letter to then Union HRD minister Arjun Singh, seeking an immediate intervention into the Sabha’s affairs. Neither of these materialised.
The glorious past
Formed in 1893 by three of Hindi’s brightest minds and subsequently nurtured by India’s eminent personalities such as M.K. Gandhi and M.M. Malaviya, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha has played a significant role in developing a standard grammar for modern Hindi, gathering rare manuscripts, publishing Hindi’s first dictionaries, encyclopaedias and journals, and even contributed to the freedom movement. The modern Hindi that we use today greatly owes to a range of outstanding writers, critics and historians who had been associated with the Sabha before Independence. These writers introduced an academic rigour and a creative vitality to the language and made it an important cultural signpost during the freedom movement.
However, it has been with a single family over the last six decades. In 1969, Sudhakar Pandey was elected as the Sabha’s general secretary and held the post till his death in 2003. Considered close to Indira Gandhi, Pandey won the Chandauli Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket in 1971 and remained an MP till 1977. After the Congress came to power again in 1980, he was sent to Rajya Sabha.
Such has been the control of this family that the Sabha’s Delhi office that was earlier called Nagari Pracharini Sabha, New Delhi, was renamed as Pandit Sudhakar Pandey Nagari Bhavan after his death.
The court battle
Padmakar Pandey took charge of the prestigious body after his father’s death, and soon dissent came out in the open. While Sudhakar was at least operating from Varanasi, Padmakar, who taught at a Delhi University college, ran the Sabha from India’s capital and became its general secretary in 2004. The next election that was due in 2007, was held in 2008 and Padmakar became the general secretary again.
It provoked rebellion among the ranks and a parallel Committee of Management was set up under an executive council member, Shobh Nath Yadav. The Yadav faction began staking claim on the Sabha, and seized control of some parts of its premises.
Both the factions finally locked horns when they approached Varanasi’s Assistant Registrar of Societies in 2015, with competing claims that they had held the elections on 2 February 2015 and 8 March 2015 respectively. Both sought to get their ‘winner’ candidates and the new committee registered under the Society Act.
Adding to the chaos, while the matter was pending before the Assistant Registrar, as many as 161 general council members went against both the factions and filed a signed affidavit challenging the validity of the elections.
In its December 2015 order, the Assistant Registrar of Societies, Manoj Kumar Singh, questioned the claims made by both Pandey and Yadav, highlighted “various irregularities in the election process”, and referred the case to the Varanasi Sub Divisional Magistrate.
According to the Sabha’s by-laws, it must hold elections to its executive council every three years and elect its general secretary. The general council has several hundred members. But it’s the EC that ultimately takes calls. In other words, as long as the issue related to the election was not resolved, the prestigious institution became an infructuous body.
Pandey went to the Allahabad High Court against Singh’s decision, but the court upheld the Assistant Registrar’s decision. Pandey went in for an appeal, but the court dismissed it. In its 17 May 2016 order, a Division Bench of the Allahabad HC noted that “there has been a serious dispute as to who are the rightful claimant of the Committee of Management”.
The High Court ordered that the prescribed authority (the Sub Divisional Magistrate) should resolve the dispute and ensure that elections were held in accordance with the by-laws of the society.
The murk spreads
Interestingly, while the court battle was on about which committee had the rights over the Sabha, the Pandey faction gave a major part of a building on the Sabha’s campus on a ten-year lease to a medical company, Nordic Formulations Pvt Ltd, in February 2016 for Rs 21,015 monthly rent (a copy of which is with me). The lease is extendable by another ten years.
The case is still pending with the SDM, but Padmakar Pandey, as the Sabha’s representative, continues to be on various bodies created by Union ministries for Hindi.
“The 2015 election is in the court, but we are still authorised to undertake various activities of the Sabha,” Brijesh Pandey, the Sabha’s Varanasi Office Superintendent, told me in defence of the Pandey faction.
The Pandey faction held yet another election to the Sabha’s general council in 2016, to be again contested by the Yadavs. “When the hearing is on before the SDM, the elections have no meaning,” Shobh Nath Yadav’s son Pintu Yadav, who claimed himself to a member of the general council, told me.
Brijesh, however, termed the Yadav faction “bogus and fake”.
At present, both the factions have some control over some parts of buildings, and it seems that they are happy with status quo. Several of the executive council and general council members in the Pandey faction are their relatives.
When Arjun Singh was the Union HRD minister, a range of renowned Indian and international academics and writers had written him an open letter, which was published in Jansatta, drawing attention to the decay in the Sabha. The signatories included Krishna Sobti, Vasudha Dalmia, Rupert Snell, Sudhir Chandra, Francesca Orsini and Mariola Offredi. They wrote that the general council had not met in several years and the names of several deceased members continued to be in its list. The “Sabha’s international guesthouse that was inaugurated by Vice-President Shankar Dayal Sharma is given on rent for weddings,” they wrote, and raised objections to the “family rule” over the Sabha. They urged the central government to “immediately intervene, set up an enquiry commission and revamp the Sabha’s entire structure”.
The government of India has the authority to take over any institution, and declare it an Institute of National Importance. When the central government took over the Kalakshetra Foundation in the 1990s, a plan was mooted to enact a similar law for Nagari Pracharini Sabha.
The situation has worsened since then. Rare manuscripts are decaying and the Sabha has barely published anything in the last several years, and, caught between contentious claims about elections by both the sides, it doesn’t have a legitimate executive authority either. Ideally, all its archives and literary resources should have been online by now, but this is a rare institution without a website in the digital era. Few people of the younger generation now know about it, as the Sabha slides towards oblivion.
It was due to such institutions that Hindi had become a prominent language during the freedom movement. I recently wrote about the decline of the language in the intellectual sphere in the last few decades and how the Hindi heartland was the first to register the fall of secularism.
These twin developments, aided by the Hindi media that has increasingly fostered communal tendencies and stripped the language of its dignity, must be seen in the context of the decline of great institutions like the Pracharini Sabha that once stood as a bulwark against divisive forces and contributed greatly to the building of a modern Hindi society.
The Sabha performed another role. Practitioners of a language often need institutional support for their academic and creative ventures. The Sabha was among the foremost such institutions in the first half of the 20th century and its decline has had a severe impact on the Hindi sphere.
The Sabha’s ruin is being felt in multiple zones. The Hindi language is losing a major centre and a rich chapter of its heritage, and the Hindi community is losing what was once its greatest think-tank.
The writer community and the State must immediately intervene and save this institution.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.