‘Tradition of harmony and dialogue under threat’

Print edition :
Interview with K. Satchidanandan, former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi.

For the first time in independent India, writers of all hues have openly expressed outrage at the culture of intolerance in the country.

K. Satchidanandan, eminent Malayalam poet, academic literary columnist, bilingual critic and former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi, resigned from all the committees of the Sahitya Akademi protesting against the Akademi’s failure to stand up for and defend the freedom of expression of writers. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Writers across the country have been returning their Sahitya Akademi awards one after the other. You are one of writers to register your protest. Is this form of protest necessary and what is the context that sets it apart from other such protests? Is the protest only against the Sahitya Akademi or does it signify something larger?

I think this question calls for an elaborate response that will place the resentment in context. The spate of protests from writers—followed by a letter to the Prime Minister by around 200 social scientists, creative people and intellectuals from West Bengal, Maharashtra and Gujarat, and the many gatherings and demonstrations that have been taking place since—springs from an anguished concern over the growing intolerance in the country leading to curbs on the freedom of belief, thought, expression and ways of life whose diversity has been the very source of India’s civilisational richness and profundity.

Our real tradition, the one that all of us who have joined the protest in some manner want to flourish, is one of mutual respect, dialogue and debate, on which our democracy is founded. We have always had several different systems of thought, many religions and cults and beliefs and ways of life and articulation that happily coexisted to create a beautifully inclusive culture that even welcomed new religions and languages with warmth and made them part of our own civilisation. This openness and inclusiveness are at the heart of our culture—despite its many negative aspects, including the caste system—and our liberal Constitution ensures the maintenance of this plurality. But to our despair and dismay, this tradition of harmony and dialogue is under threat today from divisive and sectarian communal forces that strive to ruin this diversity and turn the country into an insular, intolerant mono-religious and monocultural entity with little space for compassion, mutual recognition and interaction. Argument is being replaced by annihilation as proved by the recent dastardly murders of the scholar-writers Govind Pansare, Narendra Dhabolkar and M.M. Kalburgi.

It seems these muscular majoritarian forces want to decide not only what we should think, write and perform—as evidenced by the silencing of the writer Perumal Murugan, the earlier attacks on scholars such as A.K. Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger and James Lane, researchers like Megha Kumar and artists and film-makers like M.F. Husain, Ghulam Ali, Habib Tanvir, Mallika Sarabhai, Anand Patwardhan, Nandita Das, Nakul Sawhney, Gopal Menon and Deepa Mehta —but even what we should eat as is clear from the recent murder of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri [Uttar Pradesh] suspected of eating beef. NGOs working for the protection of the environment like Green Peace and human rights activists like Teesta Setalvad and Medha Patkar are being persecuted, with false cases being foisted on them.

Prestigious public institutions like the Indian Council for Historical Research [ICHR], the National Book Trust [NBT] and the Film and Television Institute of India [FTII], so far headed and run by eminent scholars, thinkers, historians, philosophers, social scientists, educationists and creative people, are being systematically destroyed by the appointment of little-known, ignorant or ill-reputed people to key posts. It is ironic that those who have vowed to safeguard constitutional rights are themselves challenging the Constitution with inflammatory statements and hate speeches every other day, leading to riots and instilling fear in the minorities. We feel that all those who are concerned have to rise above sectarian considerations, come together, introspect, analyse and develop a critique of the negative forces working to ruin the country.

Would it be correct to say that this was the first time that the writer community acted on its own without being led by any political party or ideological dispensation, although some sections within the government have opined that the protests were ideologically motivated?

Writers have come together for causes earlier too in recent history, especially against the suppression of freedoms. Artists and writers rose spontaneously when the Babri Masjid was felled and M.F. Husain was attacked by the same forces of intolerance, and when Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of Bangladesh and later attacked in Hyderabad by Islamist fundamentalists, and when the pogrom happened under the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat. I myself was part of these protests. Writers and artists also rose against the Emergency and our works were subjected to censorship. We were not led by any political party on any of these occasions. The government’s opinion does not hold water as the writers who returned the awards or resigned from the Akademi did not consult one another or hold meetings before they did so; many of them did not even know one another. It was funny that some Intelligence Bureau person approached Ganesh Devy to find out who was behind this cascade. There was no one behind it except a hurt conscience, a patriotic fervour, a moral indignation.

Critics say the writers could have fought for more autonomy for the Akademi. Did lack of autonomy prevent the Akademi from taking a strong position on the wanton killings of rationalists and writers, one of whom was himself a Sahitya Akademi awardee?

Sahitya Akademi is autonomous. While I was heading it, I refused to toe the line when we were asked to celebrate the Kargil victory, declaring that writers are against all sorts of wars and have to rise above jingoism. During the presidentship of U.R. Ananthamurthy, the Akademi passed a resolution against the government when it banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Even the present timid Akademi President once wrote to the Ministry that he cannot do things without the consent of the Executive Board when they pressured the Akademi to hold an event on a writer where people chosen by the ruling party alone would speak. But I could feel the timidity and fear of the present dispensation when the Akademi was forced to celebrate the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or do a programme in Benares during Modi’s visit. Had I been heading it, I would never have allowed these things to happen as the institution has nothing to do with such events. Ashis Nandy, in a casual conversation with me, had remarked with regard to the Swachh Bharat campaign that the rulers had reduced Mahatma Gandhi to the level of a janitor. So the question is not with the constitution of the Akademi: those who created the institution and framed its constitution were liberals like Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who saw to it that the Akademi would not depend on the government —unlike many State Akademies like that in Kerala where, when the government changes, the ruling bodies of the Akademi get dissolved and the sycophants of the ruling coalition get elected to the new bodies. I remember how I once turned down an invitation from the Government of Kerala—it was a Left-led government—to be a member of the Akademi’s general council as I felt this convention was obnoxious. I also visited the refugee camps after the Gujarat pogrom and addressed the writers in Gujarat when I was Secretary [of the Akademi] under the [A.B.] Vajpayee government. I was abused by the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS], but they could not go further because of the institution’s autonomy—except for funds, which are subject to its audit.

Nehru, who was the Prime Minister of India as also the first President of the Sahitya Akademi, famously said the he would not allow the Prime Minister of India to intervene in the decisions of the President. I know “Nehruvian” is a term of abuse now and some of us have been called by our critics Nehruvian. This is nothing surprising when some leaders want Gandhi to be replaced by Godse as the prospective Father of the Nation. In short, it is not lack of constitutional autonomy but the insensitivity and temerity of the present leadership that has led to this situation.

Attacks on writers are not new and different governments have found different methods to deal with the phenomenon. But do you see a shift in the form of intolerance and protest against the community of writers-artists in recent times? Is it correct to club all political dispensations and their handling of intolerance together?

Writers have been criticised, abused, coerced, challenged in the courts and even threatened in the past. But for the first time they are being shot dead in broad daylight just for holding a view different from that of the narrow Hindu revivalists. Even during the Emergency, writers were not physically annihilated. This is a paradigm shift of sorts, from censorship to murder, which reminds one of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union.

And lastly, do you think that the return of the awards negatively affects the image of the country?

Writers fight primarily through their writing and creative people are often introverts. And yet there are times like these when they may be forced to come together and create common platforms of resistance, just as some of us have done by launching the Indian Writers’ Forum with a journal, Guftugu, and a website, both of which are aimed at promoting democratic awareness and fighting authoritarian and standardising trends and the oppression of the weak. I agree with you about the consequence of the protests: they have raised India’s prestige as a democratic country that still has some space for dissidence and dissent, while it is the dark forces that murder those who hold different views or follow different faiths and live and eat and think differently that are bringing shame to our country. They insult our democracy and our argumentative traditions.

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