Writers' protest

Fighting intolerance

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Writers and cultural activists at a protest march outside the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi on October 23. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

K. Satchidanandan, a former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi. Photo: R. RAVINDRAN

Uday Prakash, Hindi writer and poet. Photo: PTI

Sara Joseph, Malayalam writer. Photo: S. RAMESH KURUP

Ashok Vajpayi, Hindi poet.

Novelist Anita Desai, also a Sahitya Akademi awardee, urged the institution to defend the rights of free speech of writers. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The attacks on writers, activists and members of the minority community by vigilante squads, which betray the rising intolerance of plurality in the polity, prompt many renowned writers to return their Sahitya Akademi awards.

The killings of writer-rationalists Narendra Dhabolkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi in one part of the country and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in another part were unconnected events, separated spatially and temporally. Dhabolkar, Pansare and Kalburgi were staunch opponents of orthodoxy and superstition. Dhabolkar was Maharashtra’s most vocal rationalist; Pansare was a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI); and Kalburgi was a former Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi (Karnataka) and a Sahitya Akademi award winner. That the killings of the three rationalists were somehow related was exposed when a threatening letter reached the doorstep of K.S. Bhagawan, another rationalist and freethinker residing in Mysore, with the words: “Three people we have finished, next is your turn; no amount of police protection will help. Your time is over, count the days.” A Bajrang Dal activist was reportedly arrested for posting threatening remarks on Twitter against Bhagawan.

The attacks on writers and members of the minority community by vigilante cow protection squads have all been part of a pattern. While the lynching of a young truck driver in Jammu and Kashmir and the blackening of the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni in Mumbai appeared as disparate events, there was a feeling among intellectuals that the atmosphere of intolerance was growing steadily. The incidents triggered protests by writers and artists. Uday Prakash, a renowned Hindi poet and writer, returned his Sahitya Akademi award in September to protest against the August 30 murder of Kalburgi. Soon, Nayantara Sehgal, Ashok Vajpayi, Sara Joseph and 37 others who were honoured by the Sahitya Akademi and similar national and regional organisations returned their awards. The writer Anita Desai, also a Sahitya Akademi awardee, urged the institution to defend the rights of free speech of writers. In Tamil Nadu, two leading writers, Krishnaswamy Nachimuthu and Indira Parthasarthy, urged the Akademi to adopt a resolution condemning the shameful atmosphere of communal intolerance in the name of religion.

Uday Prakash told Frontline from Chhattisgarh: “This is the first time in independent India that transcending all layers and political identities, writers and artists have come out in open protest. I returned my award four days after Kalburgi was murdered. It was not just that, but the backdrop of threats, bans and intimidation that had become the norm soon after this government took over. I was very perturbed. The original publishers of my book on casteism, The Girl with the Golden Parasol, now reprinted by Yale, told me to buy the remaining copies or else they would have to pulp it. My angst is that even when there is a train accident, Ministers rush to the spot. The Sahitya Akademi, an institution of writers, did not even find it fit to take up the murders and intimidation of writers seriously. It is wrong to say that we did not oppose the Emergency. Many of us did. If the Akademi refuses to take back the award money, I plan to donate it for the upkeep of Amir Khusro’s mausoleum in Delhi.”

Maya Krishna Rao returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi award and joined the chorus of protest; Kannada writers returned their awards to the Kannada Sahitya Parishad soon after the murder of Kalburgi. Nine Punjabi writers, including Chaman Lal, who translated the works of the revolutionary Urdu poet Pash, also returned their awards. The Urdu poet Munawwar Rana announced his decision to return the award money as well as the plaque while speaking in a television debate. Keki N. Daruwala, who received the award in 1984, explained the reasons for his action in a long letter to the Akademi president. He said:

“It [the Akademi] has not stood up as boldly as it should for values that any literature stands for, namely freedom of expression against threat, upholding the rights of the marginalised, speaking up against superstition and intolerance of any kind. Nor has the Akademi spoken out against any organisation/ideological collective that has used physical violence of the worst sort against authors. That M.M. Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi winner, should be killed for no other reason except his rationalist views is something that cannot pass—a goon rings a door bell, he opens the door and gets shot. This could happen to you and me [Vishwanath Prasad], Tiwariji.”

The lynching of Akhlaq, for suspected possession of beef, at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh acted as a further catalyst, making writers believe that neither their works nor they themselves were safe any more. Two more lynching incidents—one in Himachal Pradesh and the other in Jammu and Kashmir, again on the basis of rumours of cattle being smuggled for slaughter, were enough indication that areas that never witnessed communal polarisation were now sitting on the edge of a communal cauldron. The spate of violence did not stop with this. Sheikh Abdul Rashid, aka Engineer Rashid, an independent legislator of Jammu and Kashmir who was assaulted by BJP legislators in the State Assembly for holding a beef party in the legislators’ hostel, once again became the target of right-wing elements when he organised a press conference in New Delhi for the grieving family members of Zahid Rasool, the Udhampur truck driver who was lynched by alleged Sangh Parivar activists on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Rashid’s face was smeared with ink by activists claiming allegiance to the Hindu Sena.

The anxiety of the writing community was understandable. Soon after it assumed the reins of power at the Centre, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) did not waste much time in purging whatever it felt was antithetical to its world view. The “pulping” of the American Indologist and historian Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternate History (Frontline, March 7, 2014, and April 4, 2014) was the beginning. Even earlier, Hindutva forces had ensured the removal of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three HundredRamayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translation” (included in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia edited by Paula Richman) from the reading list of an undergraduate history course in Delhi University (Frontline, November 18, 2011).

The continued silence of the Akademi and statements by Ministers acted as a catalyst for the protests. The murder of Kalburgi was perhaps the turning point. Four of the 20 members of the Sahitya Akademi’s council resigned in October.

Rattled by the protests, Finance and Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley remarked in his Facebook post that the protests were “a case of manufactured paper rebellion” and wondered whether it was a case of ideological intolerance. He wrote: “With the Congress showing no signs of revival and an insignificant Left lacking legislative relevance, the recipients of past patronage are now resorting to ‘politics by other means’. The manufactured protest of the writers is one such case.” He was at pains to point out that all the incidents against which the writers were protesting had taken place in States where the BJP was not in power and that even the attacks on churches in and around Delhi were found to be instances of petty crime. He took upon himself the task of defending the government even as the Prime Minister remained silent. Other Union Ministers also criticised the protesting writers.

On October 20, five writers’ organisations and journalists’ organisations, including the Janwadi Lekhakh Sangh (or Progressive Writers’ Association), held a meeting in defence of rationality and freedom where writers and journalists of all hues spoke in defence of the writers who had returned their awards. On September 16, a delegation of writers met the Sahitya Akademi President and urged him to convene a condolence meeting in memory of Kalburgi. They were deeply disappointed by the attitude of Tiwari, who, while disapproving of the murder, did not feel the need to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the growing attacks on writers in general.

(On October 23, after remaining silent for a month and a half, the Sahitya Akademi’s executive board convened a “special meeting” to discuss the apprehensions among writers and the decision of around 40 of them to return their Akademi awards. In a resolution passed at the marathon meeting, which began in the morning and continued after noon, the board said it was “deeply pained and strongly condemns the murder of Professor M.M. Kalburgi and other intellectuals and thinkers”. It did not refer to the murders of Dhabolkar and Pansare specifically or to the overall atmosphere of growing intolerance but referred to the “pain and outrage against the murders of authors in the past” and condemned “any atrocity against any writer anywhere in the country” and against “fellow citizens from different walks of life”. The two-page resolution demanded that the “Centre and States maintain the ambience of peaceful coexistence in the societies [sic]”. It also requested the authors who had either returned their awards or severed their association with the Akademi to reconsider their decisions. )

Support for the writers came from international quarters. PEN International, the global writers’ body, urged the Government of India to provide better protection to writers and safeguard free speech as envisaged and guaranteed in the Constitution. Delegates from 73 countries, who were participating in the 81st Congress of the Pen International in Quebec City, Canada, threw their weight behind the Indian writers who had returned their awards. “We stand in solidarity with the more than 50 novelists, scholars, poets, and public intellectuals who have returned their awards to the Akademi and admire their courage,” stated the letter of John Raulston Saul, president of the organisation.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), while ruling out any hand in motivating writers to return the award, backed them wholeheartedly. “India’s writers have done the country proud,” an editorial in People’s Democracy, the party’s official organ, stated. “They have stood up to condemn the rising attacks on freedom of expression, the worst manifestation of which was the killing of Prof. M.M. Kalburgi who was murdered by extremists on August 30. Irrespective of the language they write in, or, the region they belong to, creative writers have registered a powerful protest at the supine and craven attitude of the Sahitya Akademi in not responding to the killing of one of its awardees and a former member of its council. By returning the awards bestowed on them and by resigning from the positions they hold in the Akademi, they have also spoken out against the growing attacks on plurality and cultural diversity by the Hindutva forces,” it said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who remained silent on the incidents of lynching and on the concerns raised over rising intolerance, said that people should follow President Pranab Mukherjee’s exhortation that it was the core civilisational values of diversity, tolerance and plurality that had kept India together. Mukherjee reiterated these remarks at a meeting at Birbhum, West Bengal. The Prime Minister’s reticence was puzzling, especially as several of his Cabinet Ministers were defending the government. While some of them did condemn the killings, they quickly added that these were stray incidents and that generalising them would affect the country’s image. Union Culture and Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma, who stirred up a controversy with his comments after the Dadri lynching, remained non-committal on issues concerning the Sahitya Akademi. He told Frontline (see interview) that if anyone (from the writers’ community) approached him, he would definitely take up the matter.

The renowned Malayalam writers Paul Zacharia and M. Mukundan did not return their Akademi awards, but they have thrown their weight behind the dissenting writers. Mukundan, described as one of the pioneers of modernity in Malayalam literature, told Frontline that individual writers who had been returning their awards should become a part of the Indian Writers’ Forum in order to coordinate the opposition better: “I did not return my award for some logical reasons. The awards are given by writers themselves in recognition of esteem from the public. It would be disregarding that esteem. However, the spontaneous reactions of the writers are commendable. The Sahitya Akademi should have convened an executive committee meeting where it could have passed a resolution after Kalburgi’s murder. The Akademi itself is constituted democratically where the President is elected by the General Council, which comprises writers. It gets its finance from the government but is autonomous in nature. People have resigned from important committees like the Finance Committee that affects the day-to-day running of the Akademi, which may then give the government a chance to intervene. I fully justify the reasons why the writers returned their awards. In Kerala, it is because of the Left parties that right-wing elements are in check. We can eat beef here as well; there is great social awareness and the kind of incidents that happen in the rest of the country do not happen here. The strong presence of the Left has to do with that. However, there is growing intolerance. As an example, I once made an innocuous remark about the Akshardham temple in Delhi resembling a Bollywood movie set. I received threatening calls and anonymous letters. I am a Hindu and I believe in God too. Writers are feeling threatened and have become extremely cautious in what they say and what they write. This is not healthy.”

Zacharia, a short story writer, essayist and novelist, told Frontline that such intolerance would only grow under the BJP-led regime. “This was the best way to draw attention to the violent acts of killing intellectuals. Instead of one thousand writers demonstrating, returning awards is a strong symbol of protest. I personally haven’t returned my State and Central award as I do not see the Sahitya Akademi as a government body. It is a self-administered body so I wonder if by fighting the Akademi we are making a point against Modi and his government. It is still one of the places that this government has not taken over. Anyone in the General Council could have written to the President asking to convene a meeting and to pass a resolution condemning the killings. I understand no one did. The Akademi doesn’t act on its own unless it is pushed to doing so. The central issue is that the money comes from the Culture Ministry. Yes, that may be a reason for being afraid, but no excuse for being cowardly. I am grateful to all those who returned their awards as it is because of them that attention has been drawn to the issue,” he said.

The disquiet will not die down anytime soon. Although some Union Ministers and Chief Ministers have been told to exercise restraint in their remarks, such exercises are likely to be cosmetic at best. In any event, it helps the consolidation of the kind of support that has reaped dividends electorally for the BJP in the past. Thus there is little reason why it should abandon this agenda in the name of good governance.

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