The past two months has seen a spate of protests by the country’s intelligentsia against a perception of ‘rising intolerance’ – and returning awards has become their favoured mode of expressing this protest. While we could agree with the writers, artists, film-makers and scientists resorting to this, or agree to disagree with them – the affair has definitely put the NDA on the back-foot. While many views may be gleaned from the subtest of this protest, Modi and his A-team can no longer ignore the fact that among those criticizing the government are staunch admirers of Modi and those in favour of the vision as articulated by him for carrying India forward. Also among those who have sought the PMs intervention in reining in the motor-mouths of the Parivar and speaking against atrocities have our own illustrious President Pranab Mukherjee, not to mention corporate head-honchos who rooted for Modi in the run-up to the 2014 election. Now with the RBI governor alerting the government on economic repercussions and negative sentiments, and a particular rating agency raising red flags, it has indeed become worrisome. Raman Swamy writes on the scenario, from his own point of view.
Early September this year, not many people took notice when Uday Prakash, a noted Indian poet, translator, journalist and short story writer announced that he had decided to give back his Sahitya Akademi award bestowed upon him some five years ago. Nor did it create any ripples outside literary circles when he spelt out the reason for his astonishing act: “This is not the moment to be silent and find a safe corner to hide in. Otherwise, these dangers will continue to rise”. What dangers was he talking about, many wondered, and promptly forgot all about it, going about their daily business without any second thoughts. But soon another literary figure, Kannada poet Chandrashekhar Patil, announced that he too would be returning Karnataka’s highest literary award, the Pampa Prashasti Award.
The trickle soon became a potential flood, and the trend a veritable torrent. As many as eight well-known writers from all over Karnataka – Dharwad, Bellari, Bagalkot, Mandya and elsewhere – quickly followed in the footsteps of Uday Prakash and Chandrashekhar Patil, returning the Aralu Prashasti honours bestowed on them by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat. Then four other litterateurs followed suit – Chidanand Sali, a writer from Raichur, Veeranna Madiwalar, Satish Jawaregouda and Sridevi Alur.
All of them were protesting against the brutal murder of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi and other rationalists. But still not many people in the rest of the country paid much heed. These poets and writers from the South are probably crazy – this was the general opinion of most Indians still basking in the warmth of bright-eyed expectation that achche din are just around the corner and their motherland would soon witness a national resurgence. But since then, there has been a spate of resignations from the Sahitya Akademi, the première literary council of the nation with many more writers and scholars, not just from Karnataka but from all over the country, returning awards given by various academies and governments.
Within the past four weeks, as many as three dozen literary figures have come forward to join what is beginning to look like a powerful silent protest. The media’s attention was particularly caught when Nayantara Sahgal, the 88-year-old niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, returned her prestigious award along with a stinging criticism of the government’s strange reluctance to react meaningfully to the horrific Dadri incident in which a man was lynched to death for allegedly consuming beef. She said in an open letter that there were disturbing signs that dissent was deliberately being crushed in India by religious extremists, under the patronage of the government at the Centre.
After Sahgal came the news that Ashok Vajpeyi, the noted poet, had issued a call for all writers and intellectuals in the country ‘to join hands and take a stand’ against ‘religious fanaticism’ and the ‘assault on culture and free speech’. Padma Shri awardee Shashi Deshpande was quick to follow suit by relinquishing her position in the academic council and publicly declaring her strong sense of disappointment with the institution’s failure to protest against the violence its patrons were subjected to. Writer K Satchidanandan too resigned in protest against the première literary body’s ‘failure to fulfil its duty to uphold the precious freedom of expression’.
A mere week later, noted feminist author Sarah Joseph announced that she too would return the Sahitya Akademi award. She cited ‘the rising tide of intolerance in the country’ to explain her drastic decision. Stating that ‘the country is now passing through a very grave phase’, she said ‘we the writers have a role to play in the way things are going on in our country’. Voicing the feelings of her contemporaries, Sara Joseph averred: “Fear is growing. There is fear about what one eats, when one expresses love, and what one writes and speaks. This does not augur well”.
Similar fears have been echoed by Rahman Abbas, the 2011 winner of the Maharashtra State Sahitya Academy Award. In an open letter he has said: “The social and political scenario of our beloved country is worsening with every passing day. Right wing forces are polarizing the nation in the name of religion, caste and ethnicity for political gains. Dissent is systematically crushed and rational thinkers and writers are threatened and brutally killed in broad daylight. The murderers of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Prof Kalburgi are still at large and the government is taking no action. Instead it is hiding behind various excuses for not banning fanatical organizations, which are behind the heinous crimes”.
Nayantara Sahgal sees’vicious assault’ on Indian’s diversity. Ashok Vajpeyi says ‘we cannot remain voiceless’ and has appealed to senior Urdu writers and poets including Javid Akhtar, Gulzar, Munawwar Rana, Nida Fazli and others to register their protest against the murder and killing of creative writers by returning their Sahitya Academy Awards.
Even now, many educated middle class citizens may be puzzled about the nature of the looming dangers. But when thinkers and writers of such eminence from all corners of the country rise in such numbers to express anguish and fear, it should be clear that they have sensed something sinister and dangerous is happening. Rationalist thinkers being killed, a renowned ghazal singer being prevented from holding a concert, an unqualified person being imposed as the head of a première film institute, a jihad being declared against inter-caste marriages, a man being lynched on suspicion of eating beef, minority community citizens being routinely threatened, young women being humiliated for wearing modern clothes, churches being vandalised and or set on fire, history text-books being re-written with unproven and biased material, men and women in saffron robes indulging in outrageous and provocative diatribes against minority community customs and faith – the list of aberrations is there for all to see and hear.
During the regime of Adolf Hitler just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, German scholar Martin Niemoller wrote the following famous lines:
“First they came for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist ….
Then they came for the Poets and Writers, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a poet or writer ….
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew ….
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant ….
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left, to speak up for me”.