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Writers Who Are Returning Sahitya Akademi Awards Need a Better Story

22/10/2015 3:14 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - AUGUST 15: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the occasion of 69th Independence Day celebration on August 15, 2015 in New Delhi, India. In his address to the nation from the Red Fort, PM Modi spoke about the progress of various social security schemes launched by his government. He said efforts to bring back black money stashed abroad are on, while stressing that there's no place for casteism or communalism in India. Modi repeatedly referred to the central role of the country's one billion-plus population - which he dubbed 'Team India' - in his government's development plans, saying the people alone will take India to new heights. Modi, who spoke without the protection of a bulletproof shield, said his government had accepted the demand for OROP in principle but did not commit himself to a timeframe for rolling out the scheme. Modi warned that corruption was eating away at India 'like a termite' as he used an Independence Day speech to pledge his commitment to eradicating graft and poverty. Patriotic fervour swept the nation today as it celebrated its 69th Independence Day, with announcing development initiatives, flagging the challenges ahead and pledging to take their states forward on the path of peace and progress. (Photo by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

An interesting story is now unfolding in India: many award-winning writers are protesting by giving back their awards to the Sahitya Akademi (SA) - the national academy of letters. Although this is real-life drama, it's leaning towards the mystery genre. Certain key aspects of the plot are hazy: what are they protesting; who are they protesting to; why are they protesting now; and just where is the action leading.

While clubbed under the umbrella of "growing intolerance", the specific reasons given by the individual writers are somewhat varied.

Nayantara Sahgal (one of the first writers to give back her award, and by the way, Nehru's niece) says this in a letter to SA president: " ... how anguished we are that you have remained silent over the murder and intimidation of writers and the threat that hangs over dissent and debate."

Ghulam Nabi Khayal points to the "growing communalism in the country in last one year while Dalip Kaur Tiwana points to the violence against Sikhs perpetrated in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

Rahman Abbas says, "after the Dadri lynching [last month a muslim in a village in UP was killed because he was mistakenly thought to have beef in his home], the Urdu writing community has been quite unhappy".

Initially, the writers' anger seemed aimed at the SA for not responding in a concerned manner to the deaths of three rationalists/scholars/writers. All three men were most likely targeted by Hindu fanatics for speaking out against harmful superstitious beliefs and traditions. However, the SA has no links to rationalism nor Hindu fanaticism. It is an autonomous and apolitical body with the mandate to promote Indian literature.

Unlike PEN, SA makes no mention on its website about promoting freedom of speech. Upon closer analysis, the writers' ire is actually towards PM Modi and the BJP party for not speaking out against communal violence. How writers returning awards to the SA serves as a protest against the current government seems debatable, even to some award-winning writers. Mridula Garg wrote a comment piece titled "Why equate Sahitya Akademi with govt?" (Times of India, Oct.13/2015, p.16). Shashi Tharoor and Govind Mishra feel that returning the awards insults the writing community.

An alternative approach may have been to emulate what happened in Mexico this past August; more than 400 writers and intellectuals wrote a strongly-worded letter directly to president Enrique Pena Nieto urging him to protect journalists and freedom of expression.

And why did the protests break out now? There seems to be the tacit implication that things were swell when Manmohan Singh was PM but have all gone downhill during the past one year with Modi in power, with one writer even saying that today is worse than during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi when civil liberties were curbed and the press was censored. If the reason is the murder of the three rationalists/scholars/writers, then indeed M.M. Kalburgi was killed this August and Govind Pansare was killed in February, but Narendra Dabholkar was killed in 2013.

If the reason is communal violence, then India has a long history of that, spread out over hundreds of years.

If the reason is a restriction of freedom of expression, there are multiple examples, even in the recent past. Back in 1988, India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie's book Satanic Verses, for fear of hurting Muslim sentiments. In 2006, painter M.F. Hussain left India because of protests and threats from Hindu fundamentalists. Rushdie was back in the eye of the storm in 2012 when the Jaipur Literature Festival cancelled his video broadcast and again in 2013 when he could not attend his movie screening Midnight's Children in Kolkata - both due to protests from Muslim fundamentalists.

Afraid it might disturb communal harmony, in 2013, judges in the state of Tamil Nadu banned screening of the film Vishwaroopam, about an Islamic terror plot. Perhaps the murder of Kalburgi was simply the last straw on the writers' backs.

There is no doubt that intolerance is present in India. However, it's not a recent occurrence and it's not related to any one political party being in power. Because of his history during the Gujarat riots and his party's links to the RSS, Modi presents an easy target - but that may be short-sighted.

And statistics and the media imply that intolerance is growing. The Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders put India at 105th place (out of 178 countries) in 2006, 140 in 2014, and 136 in 2015 (http://en.rsf.org/spip.php?page=classement&id_rubrique=1034 ).

But there is not just intolerance of non-traditional ideas, books, and art; there is also intolerance of more basic things like women. In 2007, rape incidents were pegged at just over 20,000; in 2014, at 37,681 http://www.firstpost.com/india/infographic-madhya-pradesh-tops-indian-states-in-number-of-rape-cases-says-ncrb-report-2405812.html ). In 2001, the sex ratio was 927 girls to 1000 boys; in 2011, the figure was 914.

And while many writers seem set to say "I am Kalburgi", few are saying "I am the 8000 who die each year of dowry-related deaths".

Of course, it's not as eloquent. Govind Mishra feels that returning of the awards is "being carried on by some writers for their vested interests and narrow ideological considerations".

So where is this going? Let's say that Modi gives a rousing speech against intolerance (which he has done before), condemns the associated violence, and promises to have these four murders properly investigated.

Let's say the SA board decides to revise their constitution to include the protection of free speech. Will the writers' be satisfied that their tribe is protected and head back to into the arms of the SA? Or will they think to protest intolerance even where it does not affect writers - intolerance among the greater community?

Intolerance is a long-running, deep-rooted, and stifling issue, and one definitely worth fighting for because its repercussions are widespread. These eminent writers have the words, the languages, and the reach to stir up a sizeable, popular, nation-wide movement. They have the power to bring the nation together and encourage real social progress. But they need two things: to present a clear and cohesive story where we can all be or at least empathize with the protagonists; and the imagination to see that the antagonists are greater than one man or one political party.

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