Interview: Nayantara Sahgal

Iron curtain on freedom of thought

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Nayantara Sahgal. Photo: V. Sudershan

Interview with Nayantara Sahgal, writer and columnist.

IN the last few months, many writers have returned their state awards to mark their dissent against the growing culture of intolerance. They believe that the government of the time is actively involved in promoting a dangerous politics of hatred. Eminent writers like Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Rahman Abbas and Uday Prakash have returned their state awards in protest.

In her protest letter titled “The Unmaking of India: Why I am Returning My Sahitya Akademi Award”, the 88-year-old writer Nayantara Sahgal wrote: “Rationalists who question superstition, anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism known as Hindutva—whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle—are being marginalised, persecuted, or murdered. A distinguished Kannada writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner, M.M. Kalburgi, and two Maharashtrians, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, both anti-superstition activists, have all been killed by gun-toting motorcyclists.

“Other dissenters have been warned they are next in line. Most recently, a village blacksmith, Mohammad Akhlaq, was dragged out of his home in Bisara village outside Delhi and brutally lynched, on the supposed suspicion that beef was cooked in his home. In all these cases, justice drags its feet. The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evildoers who support his ideology. It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent. The Akademis were set up as guardians of the creative imagination, and promoters of its finest products in art and literature, music and theatre.… In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award.”

Nayantara Sahgal, niece of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has been a political columnist and a strident critic of the Emergency (1975-77) imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her cousin. She has consistently spoken out against any attempts by governments to restrict free speech and is a firm believer of democratic values. Excerpts from the interview she gave Frontline.

You returned your Sahitya Akademi award to protest against the growing culture of intolerance. How do you perceive today’s situation?

The ideology in power today is Hindutva. It strives for a Hindu Rashtra. The public lynching of a Muslim man, murders of rationalists or anyone who has spoken against the ruling ideology, all this has never happened before. So many people have raised their voices against these incidents, including the President and the Vice-President of India. They have both advised the government to abide by the Constitution. Their voices are powerful and such voices give courage to the people who feel threatened by this ideology.

Cow protection has become an important political tool for Hindutva activists.

The issue of cow protection puzzles me. It is the buffalo that is mostly used as meat, not the cow. They are distorting the whole question. But I don’t know why this has to be made into a law. Such issues like food, diet and lifestyle shouldn’t be made into a law in a democracy. I also hear voices from the government that women should not be allowed to go out in the night; they should give birth to more children; or they should not be allowed to wear jeans, etc. The next thing we know that people will start agitating against all sorts of personal practices. This is absolute madness. Definitely these issues are not a matter of law.

Many eminent people, including yourself, have questioned the Prime Minister’s silence over ghastly incidents like the murder of rationalists and the public lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh.

Many, many Indians are now feeling unsafe. I would like to ask the BJP: if the fringe elements of society commit murders, does it not count as murder? Should the Prime Minister of this country not respond to such a dangerous situation? The idea of a secular, democratic India is being deliberately destroyed by the Hindutva propagandists. There is a rising tide of hatred in the country, and it is being promoted throughout the country by the ruling government. The Hindutva elements are being emboldened every day, and the Prime Minister is not doing anything to stem the rising tide of hatred.

The government is also trying to change the nature of public institutions in India. The Sahitya Akademi has not spoken against such clampdowns. Even publishers are scared to publish books that do not toe the line.

It makes things difficult not only for authors but for anyone who does not fall in line. People are not allowed the freedom of thought and speech. There is an iron curtain coming down on the freedom of thought. We are being ordered to think in one way. If we don’t think in the Hindutva way, we are in trouble in one way or another. This is a very dangerous sign. The Hindutva ideology is trying to change the very idea of India.

You were a vocal critic of the Emergency. Do you feel the situation today resembles that period?

Undoubtedly. This is a situation of a very big emergency in the country though we are not calling it that. We have set up the Indian Writers Cultural Forum. Many writers have joined it, including distinguished people like the historian Romila Thapar. We are all speaking in whatever way we can to uphold the freedom of speech and the right to dissent.

The future of India is in the hands of the Indian people. If we remain a democracy, it is a right to vote out a government. That is the ultimate way to resolve a situation like this. In the meantime, after the Bihar elections and when other State elections are held, we will get some sign of how voters are responding. I don’t think it is time to give up hope.

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