Interview

‘It’s about the unmaking of modern India’

Print edition : October 13, 2017
Interview with Nayantara Sahgal.

SHE is endlessly polite. And always unfailingly gentle. A niece of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal can easily afford to revel in nostalgia. Yet, like a seasoned boxer, she has chosen to fight one more round knowing full well that the challenge in front of her, and all of us for that matter, is more daunting than ever before. It takes just a mention of contemporary India for her to express in a gentle tone how acutely disappointed she is with the way India is shaping up and how divisive forces are besmirching the nation’s fair name in the global community.

Her decision to return the Sahitya Akademi Award to protest against the killing of the rationalists M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq on the charge of storing beef inspired more and more writers and poets to return their awards and started a new debate on freedom of thought and expression. The spark for the fight civil society put up in the wake of the killing of Gauri Lankesh was provided by Nayantara Sahgal’s early protest.

Her latest novel, When the Moon Shines by Day, is a scathing indictment of right-wing forces. Although she refrains from mentioning any Hindutva leader by name, the parallels she draws leave no room for doubt as to who she has in mind. When the Moon Shines by Day may have arrived at a time when the nation has entered its darkest times, but she says there is hope.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview she gave Frontline:

In early 2015, you were the first to draw attention to India’s pluralist ethos being in danger. Are you not sad that your worst fears are coming true?

Not only I, but millions are sad and despondent. It is much worse than the Emergency. Violence has taken the place of debate. Debate is outlawed. For anyone who disagrees with the government, there are ruthless consequences. It is seen everywhere. Innocent men are being murdered in the name of gau raksha. We have seen Mohammad Akhlaq murdered on the excuse that he was storing beef. It all started with the murder of three rationalists. Now, we have the Gauri Lankesh murder. Where is the rule of law? Where is the freedom to write, to criticise? It is very different from other times, like the Emergency or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. It is very different because we are now ruled by a different ideology. People fear that there is a fundamental change.

In a democracy, governments change. Parties contest and lose elections. Governments must change. Policies also change according to the need of the moment. All that is usual. There is no quarrel with that. It happens in every country. The quarrel is that the fundamentals of India are changing. This government does not realise that we have been a pluralist society and polity, greatly enriched by other lifestyles, respectful of different streams of being an Indian. Today, we are told that we must become a Hindu Rashtra. It is fundamentally different from what we have always stood up for.

Are we not practically a Hindu Rashtra today? We see these so-called gau rakshaks getting away with murder in the name of cow protection.

The actions that are taking place point towards that. Today, for instance, history is being rewritten. Any opinion that does not rhyme with the Hindutva ideology is wiped out. They are cutting out the whole Mughal Empire [from history]. Not just Aurangzeb, they are now targeting Akbar. Everything non-Hindutva is sought to be shown as evil or foreign.

At another level, Jawaharlal Nehru is being wiped out. They hate what he stood for, what he did for the country. But they have not targeted Mahatma Gandhi yet. They understand that it might be going too far to attack him yet. But they will be able to do so once they are able to amend the Constitution.

Complete erasure of Nehru

You say Mahatma Gandhi has been spared by Hindutva forces, but we have instances of Godse temples being built, his statue being garlanded.

These things are going on simultaneously without much disapproval from the government. However, there is no official rejection of Mahatma Gandhi by the government unlike Nehru, who is dismissed with only a passing mention in history books. Nehru was one of the founding fathers of the country; the one chosen by Gandhi ji himself. But they want to wipe out his memory. They are looking at complete erasure of what he stood for so that today’s schoolgoing generation would not know him.

The Hindutva forces had no role to play in our freedom struggle. Like the Muslim League, the Hindutva forces had an equal role to play in the creation of Pakistan. Today, they want to give our nation a religious identity. Hence, Nehru is anathema to them.

Will it be fair to say that in today’s circumstances, nationalism and religion are the new opium of the masses?

Not at all. We certainly cannot and should not say that. It is an ideology the government is feeding itself on and trying to foist on the masses. But there is resistance everywhere, from writers to film-makers to artists and activists, everybody is speaking out against an ideology of hate and division. The masses do not believe in this ideology, and they are speaking out.

You have been pretty vocal in your criticism of the Narendra Modi government. However, the Congress-led opposition has not exactly covered itself with glory.

You know it is curious that people have risen and spoken from different parts of the country, but political parties fail to understand the urgency of the matter. However, it seems there are signs of change. It might just be about to change if you look at some of the recent events carefully. I don’t belong to any political party. I am an outsider, a mere observer, but it seems things might just improve. Sharad Yadav [Janata Dal (United) leader] is moving away from Nitish Kumar to revive the “Mahagathbandhan”. I have noticed Sitaram Yechury [Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary] saying that it is time to change tack, not go it alone in elections. So, if the opposition does come together, keeping their differences aside, things will get better.

As far as the Congress is concerned, I personally feel the party is full of talent, knowledge and experience. It has extremely able men and women. If they are allowed to come forward, they are capable. Any one of them could lead the party. If it is Rahul Gandhi [Congress vice president] they want, they have to rally behind him. Now, after the Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley, where he delivered a speech] tour, he has announced that he is ready to take up the job. I can only wish him and the party well.

You returned the Sahitya Akademi Award given for “Rich Like Us” following the murder of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare. Gauri Lankesh’s murder proves that things have not improved.

I am pained. One sees and hears these things with anguish, with a sense of hurt. Where are we headed? But again, as I say, people are speaking up. Not just rationalists or journalists, all others too.

Coming to your latest work, “When the Moon Shines by Day”, will it be fair to call it incidental fiction? I say this because the work has such a strong contemporary ring to it… there are history books being banned and the like.

Well, it is a work of imagination. Having said that, every novel of mine has a contemporary flavour. It is based in the politics of the present. My work, in the past, was about the making of modern India. In this case, it is about the unmaking of modern India. The unmaking was evident in a novel like Rich Like Us. It had the Emergency in the backdrop. I wrote about how people reacted in that situation. This story is about contemporary times.

‘People are not keeping quiet’

Having seen both the Emergency and the current onslaught on pluralism and free speech, how do you think people are reacting to the challenges today? Are they kind of falling in line with the government, as some fear?

People are not keeping quiet. What we see is there are huge organised protests among different social groups across the country. Whether Dalits who refused to pick up cow carcasses in Gujarat [after the Una lynching incident] or writers who spoke up [after Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award] or activists who are on a country-wide trip of protests, people have reacted, have opposed.

We have had “Not in My Name” protests, the Karavan-e-Mohabbat tour. There have been huge protests on Gauri Lankesh’s murder, too. People are not keeping silent. It is truly remarkable when one considers that the consequences of not keeping quiet can be grave in today's times. Yes, the common people are afraid. They are afraid with good reason. They are not only being lynched by mobs, but a system is being built which does not respect any other way except Hindutva. When men are lynched, there is an uproar in our society, but nothing has happened to criminals. Just the other day, the accused in the murder of Pehlu Khan [who was lynched by cow vigilantes in Alwar, Rajasthan], those he had named in his dying declaration, were let off.

You say people are speaking up, but a large section of the media seems to have fallen in line with the dispensation.

We have two great pillars we rely upon: the judiciary and the media. Unfortunately, today three-quarters of the electronic media are owned by one business house. Many of the channels have become chamchas of the government. It is a shame. It is very unfortunate for Indian democracy. At such a time, we salute those who have stood up and remained outspoken despite the risks. We have a very strong tradition of independent print media, times when editors and columnists were courageous despite the challenges. They shine in comparison to today’s television channels. It is a lot of rubbish on TV.

Early in the novel you say, “Without art and literature we would not know the truth”. Yet it is these very forms that are being threatened today.

Art and literature are targeted by all authoritarian regimes. There is a simple reason. They have a long life. Today, if you report a piece of news, which the authoritarian government does not like, it is cut out, it is edited. However, you cannot do that with art. It is a work of imagination. It outlives the regime, outlives the artist. If you remember I have referred to the work of Picasso in my new novel because art can be dangerous to dictatorship. No dictator likes art or free speech.

You have written in the book, “Religion joined to nation is a marriage made in hell. We know this in Germany.” We do not seem to have learned anything from Germany if today’s events are anything to go by. Please comment.

On the contrary, I feel we seem to have learned everything from Germany! We are following their script. The line you refer to is spoken by a character in the novel. Here in India, we know how the Hindu Mahasabha and even the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh always upheld European dictators. For them, Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler were great examples to be emulated. From way back, they have considered them icons. They are trying to follow the same pattern.

You also say, “In matters of cruelty, I am beyond surprise”. It rings a bell in the times of mob lynching, even Myanmar brutalities.

We have seen terrible cruelty in our times. Yes, there are so many incidents of mob lynching. Innocent men being killed as they go about their everyday affairs. Writers being killed because you don’t agree with what they write. These are frightening times.

How long did it take you to pen the book? It seems to resonate with contemporary energy.

I am glad you feel that way. The book took just a few months. I get other assignments for writing every now and then. I review some books, do some pieces on invitation. Besides, I have my own business and family matters to attend to. I wrote Rich Like Us over six months. This book, with all the intervening gaps, took maybe four or five months. Personally, I believe that a book has to resonate with the reader. If it starts a thought process in the reader, the author is successful. If the reader laughs or cries, you have made it as an author. You do not forget such a book quickly.

Every few years you come out with a new book. When your next book arrives at the bookstores, do you think India would still be called a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic?

I hope so. For a writer, it is his business to write, to reflect. I reflect on political situations. What I very much hope for is a strong opposition, which will be able to project itself in a united way. The point of unity is what we must maintain in our democracy. We must stay a united, pluralist society. That should be our concern.

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