October 19, 2015

India: When Silence Is Not an Option (Editorial, EPW, 17 October 2015)

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - L No. 42, October 17, 2015

When Silence Is Not an Option


The "award wapsi" reminds us of the place of literature in society.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley chooses to dismiss it as “a manufactured revolt” but only a partisan can miss noticing that the decision of more than 40 poets, writers and performers to return national awards as a form of protest is something that India has not seen since independence. When the distinguished English language writer Nayantara Sahgalreturned her 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award, along with Hindi poets Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi, few expected that this would escalate into a virtual flood of “award wapsi” as some have called it. Its significance lies in the wider context ofthe place of writers in a democracy. Why should writers from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Punjab, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Delhi and elsewhere feel moved at this juncture to return awards given to them by the country’s premier literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi? From the common thread running through their statements of protest, it is clear that they are disappointed that the Sahitya Akademi has said next to nothing about the daylight assassination of Kannada writer and Akademi award winner M M Kalaburgiin Dharwad in August this year, nor has it noted the growing atmosphere of intolerance that this murder represents. AsK Satchidanandan, former secretary of the Akademi pointed out, “Annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument that is the very essence of democracy.”

It is this shrinking space for argument, for dissent, for difference, happening not through direct government fiat but by the actions of groups directly linked to those in power that has alarmed the literary community. Instead of heeding these voices, ministers of the Modi government and Sangh Parivar members have chosen the typical strategy of asking why these writers did not return their awards when the Emergency was declared, or when the 1984 anti-Sikh riots took place. Through this false equivalence, they deliberately choose to ignore why writers are making this gesture now. As the poet Keki N Daruwalla pointed out, they are decrying the death of values that literature stands for like “freedom of expression against threat, upholding the rights of the marginalised, speaking up against superstitions and intolerance of any kind.”

Also, although the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri is not directly related to the concerns the writers have raised, that brutal killing was probably the last straw, the trigger that has led to this flood of protests and resignations. What followed the murder has illustrated the fears expressed by the writers. Rather than reining in the mobs, people like the Union Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, and other luminaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party have set new standards for insensitivity and lack of decency.

One writer, Amitav Ghosh, has struck a different note by suggesting that rather than returning awards, the writers should seek ways to strengthen an institution like the Sahitya Akademi that has played a significant role in encouraging literature in all the major Indian languages. The system of awards draws attention to writers who, in the marketplace of publishing, would otherwise never be noticed. Yet, in the process of returning their awards, many of the writers have called for the Akademi to revert to the role originally envisaged for it when it was instituted. The Sahitya Akademi was established in 1952 and became operational by 1954 with the aim of encouraging writing in Indian languages. Its inaugural council included names like Jawaharlal Nehru, S Radhakrishnan, Maulana Abul Kalam, K M Munshi,K M Panikkar, D V Gundappa, Humayun Kabir, Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, Mahadevi Varma, Nilmani Phookan and many others. Though government-funded, it isautonomous and its awards have always been highly regarded.

Even if so far the Akademi has not felt that issuing statements was part of its remit, writers from across the country are suggesting that it is about time it did. Shashi Deshpande, the Bengaluru-based novelist, emphasised in her letter of resignation from the general council of the Akademi, “If the Akademi, the premier literary organisation in the country, cannot stand up against such an act of violence against a writer, if the Akademi remains silent about this attack on one of its own, what hope do we have of fighting the growing intolerance in our country?” Also, Deshpande’s observation that in the current climate in India, writers are not considered intellectual leaders any more and their voices do not matter, touches on another aspect of the place of literature in our society. When the market takes precedence over ideas, and when only marketable ideas count, the “thought leaders” become those who attract the largest number of eyeballs or sell the maximum number of books. On top of this when you have a minister of culture suggesting that writers should stop writing, the future of literature and free expression in India is truly bleak. The protest by writers is an important moment; it might not alter electoral arithmetic but it will stand as a reminder that silence is not an option at times like this. It is one way to counter those who prefer to settle arguments with bullets and lynching.