by Ratnakar Tripathy
Helpless expressions of daily moral outrage over communal incidents and increasing bigotry seemed to have become a way of life In India for some time now. Rather like a dull ache in the conscience you cannot do much about. But in recent days, a number of writers, one at a time decided they have had enough. They are determined to go beyond the talk and act – to return their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, the top literary body in India. This delayed gesture of protest comes long after a series of murders of writers and intellectuals Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Panasare in Maharshtra and M M Kalburgi in Karnataka. Notably, while Maharashtra has a BJP government, a Congress government rules Karnataka where Kalburgi was killed.
What started as a trickle has now turned into a cascade and even as I write these lines, the latest count is above 30 with 15 to 20 Konkani writers of Goa Konkani Lekhak Sangh (GKLS) considering returning their Sahitya Akademi awards en masse in the next few days. Nine writers from Panjab have already taken the step yesterday. The writers from various languages include widely known figures like Uday Prakash, Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Sara Joseph, Krishna Sobti, K. Satchidanandan, Dr. Atamjit Singh, Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, Ajmer Singh Aulakh, Waryam Sandhu, Aman Sethi, Shashi Deshpande, and G.N. Devy, to name a few. The latest in the series is Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana who announced on Tuesday that she was returning her Padma Shri, over perceived threat to free speech.
The immediate trigger for the spate of resignations and protest or the tipping point so to say seems to be the Dadri village incident when Mohammed Akhtaq, a Muslim ironsmith was killed by a vigilante group early this month for storing beef in his frig which was later found to be mutton in government conducted forensic tests. The obvious connection is the ‘climate of intolerance’ that the BJP-RSS duo have fomented at carefully selected sites with great vigour in the past eighteen months. In an open letter titled 'The Unmaking of India', Nayantara Sahgal the 88-year-old writer and Jawaharlal Nehru's niece, referred to the recent lynching of Mohammed Akhtaq and alleged that that the right to dissent, an integral part of the Constitutional guarantee was being threatened.
These writers are of course complaining about the growing intolerance and the silence of PM Narendra Modi over all these incidents. Or even Sonia Gandhi one may add with reference to Karnataka that has a Congress government! There is a good reason however why broad terminology like ‘increasing intolerance’ commonly used to characterize the situation seems far too understated, non-specific and inadequate. There is also another danger in using this description – we might seem to imply that an epidemic of intolerance is spreading over the broader populations in India, a highly questionable proposition and that individual responsibilities are not easy to locate. The level of danger to freedom from people in the positions of authority rather than a sweeping ‘mentality of intolerance’ should be evident from the following two examples:
First, even as the Sahitya Akademi controversy raged, on 12 October, a mob of Shiv Sena men in Mumbai attacked Sudheendra Kulkarni [former BJP leader and aide to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee] who was to attend the launch of a book written by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri - the SS activists painted Kulkarni’s face black. The move clearly had sanction from the top as the SS MP and spokesperson Sanjay Raut reacted to the incident by saying the “agents of Pakistan” [Kulkarni] should be “kicked on the butt”. Yuva Sena Chief Aditya Thackeray rubbed salt to the wound by claiming the attack on Kulkarni was ‘historic and democratic’.
Second, as writers continue to return their Sahitya Akademi awards to protest against the graveyard silence of the central government and the Akademi over the threat to free speech, on Monday 12 October, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s in his response said, “If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see.” Speaking to a newspaper Sharma said: “This is an award given by writers to writers. It has nothing to do with the government. It is their personal choice to return it… we accept it.” Technically Sharma is right as Sahitya Akademi is a registered society but like many other supposedly autonomous institutions, it is funded and controlled largely by the central government.
While it is easy to take a cynical view of the matter and dismiss the protest as entirely symbolic and thus ineffectual, one must remember that the scale of the reaction is immense and perhaps more than matches anything that happened even during the emergency of 1975. Second, writers are not mass leaders and often the most they can do is to write and speak to the media which is what they are now doing in increasing numbers. Third, returning the award as individuals may certainly be a better option than keeping quiet or grumbling among the close circles. These writers and artists are of varied ideological persuasions and it may not be easy for them to join a common procession! The Hindi poet Vishnu Khare argues that the Sahitya Aakademi is a den of corruption and privilege and that there have been other deserving occasions in the past when such a gesture seemed befitting. Similarly, Namwar Singh the famous and notorious literary powerhouse of Hindi and a Marxist trivializes the gesture accusing the protestors of chasing the headlines. He raises the technical point that the Sahitya Akademi is and continues to be the writer’s own elected body and some other forms of protest may be more appropriate. There are other academics and intellectuals active in the social media who allege that such gestures are entirely attention-seeking gimmicks – all this shows how poorly the world of letters is prepared for the onslaught on basic democratic rights. This is a terrible portent!
On the other hand, the cascade of protests may just be a prelude to a larger upsurge. During the Emergency of 1975 , the nation was taken by surprise waking up to the new reality with utter shock. Remember, the writers have anyway reacted in an uncoordinated and spontaneous fashion from different parts of the country and it seems superfluous to try and guide their actions at this stage. Even if you dismiss the return of the award as a feeble and ill-suited form of protest, attributing petty motives to the writers from all over the country and of different ideological hues, what still remains undeniable is – unlike the Emergency, we have been warned in advance in the most categorical manner possible and to the best of the ability of our writers! Why then impose on them the requirement of well-calculated, smartly devised, or strategically apprpriate action?
The writer’s response may not seem coolly rational, may even be somewhat hotheaded but that is not the same thing as being wrong!