October 13, 2015

India: Anger beyond words (editorial, The Hindu)

The Hindu, October 13, 2015

EDITORIAL: Anger beyond words

Over the past week, a growing number of writers have returned literary honours that had been awarded to them in recognition of their work — and in doing so reminded the state of its failure to protect the last man standing. What started with writer Nayantara Sahgal returning the Sahitya Akademi award she won in 1986, led to a wave of protests. The others also chose to give up their precious Sahitya Akademi awards, given by writers to writers. Their protest is against an impassive state that remains a silent spectator, effectively complicit in the act of writers and rationalists being hunted down, and a Muslim man being lynched by his own neighbours for allegedly storing beef in his home. Their rejection of the honour is a symbolic reminder of the times, as a wave of intolerance cascades from Dadri even to the most cosmopolitan of Indian cities, Mumbai, threatening to choke the air. What the writers have reminded India is what its people are today witness to: a society turning upon itself. And in asking the state to act now, the writers are telling India of the need to preserve and hold on to its pluralistic fabric. The letters serve as reminders of the fragile times we live in, when mere rumours can rob a man of his right to life. A writer speaks out when his or her conscience is numbed beyond pain. For many of them, the lynching of the Muslim man was the last straw. After all, since Partition this is probably the first time that rumours of a man killing a cow have cost him his life, in his own neighbourhood. Their protest is also against several non-state actors that owe allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party government and that call the shots in towns and villages far from the public gaze in general.

It is in this climate of intolerance and complicity by the state that the letters of protest have found their way to the Akademi and to the public realm. The Akademi is an autonomous body but has refrained from speaking out. Its silence is the silence of the state. Even the once-formidable media adviser to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has had ink thrown on his face for taking a stand on former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch event, which was opposed vehemently by the BJP’s ally, the Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena is known for acts of that kind, but they don’t behove a city such as Mumbai that prides itself on being India’s most cosmopolitan city. As for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who leads the BJP, a party that has premised itself on extending its hand to the common man, words have to match deeds. It is the responsibility of the chief servant of the country to ensure that the stain of intolerance does not spread and then consume it.