Born as Dhanpat Rai in British India, he was forced to adopt an immortal name after his collection of short stories was seized by the authorities who found them to be seditious. These stories reflect the struggle of the working class and the oppressed groups under British occupied India and highlighted the freedom movement, which were provocative enough for the foreign rulers. By all standards, it was an assault on free expression. One such collection, translated in Punjabi, bears the title that reads Munshi Premchand’s stories that were confiscated by the British.
Apart from focussing on the liberation struggle, Premchand, who was among the founding fathers of progressive literature, showcased the richness of pluralist culture of India through his novels and short fiction.
His work has become even more relevant today under a right wing Hindutva nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ever since he came to power in 2014, attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents have grown. So much so, the authors and scholars are being frequently detained and thrown in jails for questioning the power.
Ironically, Modi is a Member of Parliament from Varanasi, the birthplace of Premchand. It is not surprising to see how he is trying to appropriate the late writer who continues to dominate the literary landscape of the country. Last year, he went to the extent of claiming that he was deeply touched by the stories of Premchand in his radio address to the nation.
If Modi really means what he says then he should start releasing all the scholars and intellectuals who have been detained by his government for questioning the power. Among them is an 81-year-old revolutionary poet Varavara Rao, who was hit by Covid-19 in jail and a Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba, who is disabled below the waist. The list is long and includes published authors, like Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. These individuals were arrested on trumped up charges for merely raising voices for the poor and marginalised.
Also, Modi’s ideology completely contradicts that of Premchand. Whereas Modi wants to transform India into Hindu theocracy, Premchand’s work stands for an inclusive and tolerant society.
Modi government is behaving no differently than the British rulers who had seized the short stories of Premchand to crush resistance. If he cannot do this, then he should at least stop lying about his feelings in public.