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Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 08:28 GMT

World: South Asia

Shiv Sena chief lambasts writers

BBC Despatches

By Sanjiv Srivastava in Bombay

The annual writers's conference is a major event in the cultural calender of Maharashtra, which takes pride in the fact that some of the best known reformist thinkers of modern India have come from the state.

Literary debates, book exhibitions, open-house discussions and the routinely-held meet-the-writer programme are a part of the state's ethos, and a popular local proverb speaks about an average Maharashtrian's enthusiasm to see, meet and know more about writers.

Observers say that in the circumstances currently prevailing in Maharashtra under which the Shiv Sena chief runs his party like his dictator and also fancies himself as some kind of a culture Tsar, a face-off between writers and Bal Thackeray was only waiting to happen.

The controversy began with the Shiv Sena leader publicly ridiculing writers and poets as useless failures, who have contributed little to public life.

When the Writers' Association took objection and criticised the Shiv Sena leadership for trying to stifle freedom of expression, Thackeray hit back, saying the Association had no moral right to be critical after accepting a state government grant of about $60,000 for their annual conference.

He further compared writers to cattle at an auction, who had no right to determine their price which he said could be decided only by the buyer.

Although the Shiv Sena chief is known to court controversy - the most recent example being his opposition and then a last-minute climb-down on the issue of Indo-Pakistan cricket series - his attack on writers is certain to upset even his supporters.

Shiv Sena owes much of its political success to the rise of regional and language chauvinism and a direct confrontation with those writing in the local language will hardly help their cause.

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