Assassinations of thinkers, sadly, are not new in India. Elsewhere in the world, ancient Greeks had a Socrates and ancient Jews had a Jesus, eliminated by those who found their thoughts disturbing. India had its Basava, Mira, and Tukaram of the same order of thinkers. Leaving aside various controversies related to their deaths, they were all victims of thought-elimination. Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi are other examples in living memory.
In recent years, the phenomenon of eliminating one’s thought adversaries has marked a sharp rise. In the last few years, numerous mediapersons, writers, and thinkers have been put to death by violent means. Narendra Dabholkar was killed in Pune in 2013, Comrade Govind Pansare in Kolhapur in early 2015, M.M. Kalburgi in Dharwad later that year, and journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru in 2017. All four were advocates of rationality, truth, and communal harmony.
I had to visit Dharwad in the first week of August 2015. It is at best a sleepy academic town, devoted to music and literature. It is here that Kalburgi lived. Almost all his 120 or so books were penned during his years as a professor at Karnatak University in Dharwad and the few years he spent as Vice Chancellor of Hampi University, five hours from Dharwad. My visit was occasioned by a memorial lecture for V.K. Gokak, a well-known Kannada writer-poet.
When I was in Dharwad, Kalburgi was there. Three weeks later, I read in newspapers that two young men entered his house in the morning hours, shot him, and walked away. He was no more. On the day I read the news of his killing, the memories of my Dharwad visit were still fresh in my mind, I felt perplexed that anyone would think of murdering a scholar as gentle as Kalburgi.
The next day, I had to preside over a national conference organised by the Sahitya Akademi in Nagpur. One expected some expression of condolence as Kalburgi was a one-time awardee of the Sahitya Akademi. But there was none.
As I travelled back to Baroda, my home town, my mind was trying to make sense of the unease among writers, something India had not known since the 18 months of the Emergency during the mid-1970s.
I kept hoping that the Sahitya Akademi would issue a statement condemning the attack. Several weeks passed and nothing happened. Finally, when I realised that my hopes were of no avail, I thought it to be my moral duty to return the Akademi award I had received in 1993.
I sent a letter to the Akademi expressing my decision. I was aware that four or five other Academi award winners had similarly decided to return their awards. As a coincidence, Anil Joshi, another writer from Gujarat returned his award on the same day. Many TV channels presented the returning of awards as “an attempt to spread disaffection towards the State”. This is precisely the wording used in the Indian law related to sedition. I was a little surprised by this interpretation, for I had imagined my act as a protest against a literary body and not against the country that I have loved so deeply for over six decades.
When the ‘award–wapsi’ discussion was going on in the media space, it occurred to me that my writer friends from Gujarat had not fully grasped the brutality of the killings of Dabholkar, Pansare, and Kalburgi. For them, though perturbing, these killings were still at the level of news items. Therefore, I suggested to them that we should visit the bereaved families in Pune, Kolhapur, and Dharwad. They agreed. Some more friends from Mumbai expressed their desire to join this sojourn.
Since we were to start from Ahmedabad and move south to Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, and Dharwad, I thought the journey could be best described as ‘Going South.’ I picked up the term that would be understood with equal efficiency in Gujarati, Marathi, and Kannada, without any further need for explanation. That term was ‘Dakshinayana’.
The response to the journey was overwhelming. Large meetings of civil society were held at Pune, Kolhapur, and Dharwad. Writers from Telangana, Goa, and Tamil Nadu, too, joined us in those meetings. They all suggested that we should meet again; and so, on January 30, 2016, we met at Dandi in Gujarat. Government officials stopped us from entering Dandi for several hours, but relented when all of the assembled writers expressed their resolve not to return without going to Dandi.
The speeches at Dandi were short. All of them revolved around the word “fearlessness”. Thus, the term Dakshinayana acquired one more layer of meaning. Writers from all parts of the country were present in that meeting.
Later, more writers came together in similar meetings at Lohia Square in Madgaon, Goa; Gandhi’s Ashram in Wardha; Deeksha Bhoomi, the place of B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, in Nagpur; Shimoga and Bangalore in Karnataka; and also in Hyderabad, Delhi, and Kolkata. In most of the meetings of Dakshinayana, I found artists, filmmakers, singers, dramatists, and scientists joining in large numbers.
In a meeting of publishers in 2018, it was decided that a series of anthologies of progressive works in all major Indian languages be brought out. The Konkani volume was quickly produced by Damodar Mauzo, who received the Jnanpith award this year. The Telugu volume was edited by Kalpana Kannabiran, and the Punjabi one by the celebrated Punjabi playwright Atamjit Singh. Volumes in other languages too have been prepared and are in the process of being published.
In the last week of September 2018, on the eve of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, writers from 87 countries arrived in Pune for a PEN conference and joined hands with the Dakshinayana writers. They met at Kasturba’s memorial in the Aga Khan Palace where she died in prison.
Many of those who had come from other countries had been jailed for their writings. The rebel pen wielders of the world stood together in courage. Young literary aspirants were present in their thousands with their Dakshinayana-brand black T-shirts. Quite a movement, quite a scene.
The term Dakshinayana indicates the period of the year when the nights are long and the days are short. It also indicates, in our times, thinking about the global south. And, of course, it points to every journey into the south. By now, the Dakshinayana movement has spread into many States. Writers all over the country understand it as an advocacy of the freedom of expression.
Recently, Yogendra Yadav used the term to describe the Bharat Jodo Yatra of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. How a new meaning springs out of a word when speech is suppressed by tyrannical intent! I feel humbled by the thought that I had a role to play in establishing this perennial truth of history.
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.