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India: Writers Protest and Return Awards | Editorials in DNA and The Tribune, Kashmir Times

8 October 2015

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Daily News and Analysis, 8 October 2015

DNA Editorial: When writers protest

By returning awards conferred by governments that hesitate to take a stand against injustice, writers are reclaiming their covenant to speak without fear

When litterateurs decide to return their awards, as writer Nayantara Sahgal and poet Ashok Vajpeyi have chosen to do, their action reveals a state of agitation among India’s intelligentsia. By returning the prestigious awards, the authors have strongly conveyed their disquiet over the recent spate of violence leveraged by various groups to enforce cultural norms, supposedly identified with the Hindutva ideology. It is easy to see politics in the act of returning an award. But awards are also recognition of accomplishments and a marker of creative excellence, and returning them is not an easy task for those who have spent a lifetime perfecting their craft. For Sahgal and Vajpeyi, the decision to return their awards must have come after deep soul-searching and irreconcilable differences with the way the present government has handled or not handled the acts of violence. This is revealed by Sahgal’s short but hard-hitting statement in which she notes a concerted effort to throttle dissent and cultural diversity. While the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq of Dadri is clearly the immediate provocation, Sehgal has also raised the killings of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi and Maharashtra rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare.

These, she says, are instances of those “questioning 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 — being marginalized, persecuted, or murdered”. Writers, artists, critics and academics — with their superior powers of creative expression — also have the potential to become the conscience keepers of the society at large. It is important then that Sahgal and Vajpeyi have spoken up after the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq of Dadri. Besides putting pressure on a Prime Minister who has maintained steadfast silence on the issue, the duo, by taking a stance and renouncing awards, have thrown down the gauntlet to other intellectuals and ordinary citizens who are also outraged but have preferred to stay silent. But they are not the only ones to walk this path of resistance.

Earlier, Hindi writer Uday Prakash had returned his Sahitya Akademi award and six Kannada writers had returned their Karnataka Sahitya Parishad awards over the murder of Kalburgi, who was a vocal opponent of caste practices. Last year, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan took the unprecedented step of withdrawing his books and announcing his death as a writer after Hindu outfits took offence to his novel, Mathorubhagan.

At a broader level, it can be argued that one should not accept awards and honours from the state. Governments invariably commit acts that militate against our sense of right and wrong, and by agreeing to accept state awards their recipients greatly compromise their autonomous standing and their right to critique governments of the days. But over the past 50 years, the awards conferred by the Sahitya, Lalitkala and Sangeet Natak Akademis have come to enjoy a fair measure of credibility and respect because of the quality of work of the authors and artists who they have honoured. Some in the media have accused Sahgal, a niece of former PM Jawaharlal Nehru, of “selective outrage” and not questioning the 1984 anti-Sikhi riots that took place under the Congress’ watch. But Sahgal’s record in opposing the Emergency and co-founding the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, an organisation that has done yeoman’s service for human rights protection in India, would counter that charge of partisan politics. Questioning Sahgal’s timing and her motives is akin to missing the wood for the trees. We failed to protect Murugan, Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Akhlaq because today’s communal politics has created a class of Hindutva bigots who the law cannot touch. By speaking truth to power, 88-year-old Sahgal and her colleagues in the world of arts and letters, have come to represent the best traditions of writing and activism.

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The Tribune, 8 October 2015

Return of awards

Writers stand up for right to dissent

Writer Nayantara Sahgal has returned the Sahitya Akademi Award she won in 1986 for her novel “Rich Like Us” to protest against the increasing attacks on the right to dissent, which she says are “unmaking India.” Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi has followed suit, returning a similar honour on similar grounds. Earlier, Hindi writer Uday Prakash and six Kannada writers had returned their literary awards. Writers have voiced their protest in the past too. After Operation Blustar, Khushwant Singh surrendered his Padma Shri award. Nayantara Sahgal had protested against the Emergency too. While returning the award on Tuesday, she said this was “in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty”.

Even though most artists and writers would claim to be apolitical, art does not take place in a vacuum. All good art is political, and the return of an award makes a strong political statement. As Toni Morrison puts it, “The ones who try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘we love the status quo.’” The present practice of returning awards has been triggered by the killings of writers and rationalists in Maharashtra and Karnataka, including those of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The latest victim of a growing culture of intolerance is Mohammad Akhlaq, who was lynched recently by an organised mob on the suspicion of eating beef. Amidst all this the studied silence of Prime Minister Modi has only added to the prevailing mood of disenchantment.

The inaction or tacit support of the political leadership has emboldened fundamentalists and parties like the Shiv Sena, which has now created another controversy by demanding the cancellation of a proposed concert by Ghulam Ali. Every such demand diminishes the plurality of India. The courageous gesture of returning awards sends a strong message to the government. Critics have panned Nayantara Sahgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, for what they have called “selective outrage”, but what she, Ashok Vajpei and others have done is an act of bravery —that too at a time when it is convenient to remain silent.

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Kashmir Times - October 8, 2015

Editorial Courage to speak

When dissent begin to be responded by brutality and state patronage, India needs more Nayantaras

Nayantara Sahgal needs more than an applause for having so courageously opposed a culture of intolerance and brutality amidst a deafening silence from the majority of intellectuals and empowered elite of the country as a hate soaked perverse ideology sanctions brutal murders and marginalization of dissenters and minorities and the government, far from cracking down on culprits, chooses to justify the wrongs on some feeble pretext of the other. Sahgal, known for her forthright views, uprightness, conviction and courage, has returned her Sahitya Akademi award "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." While returning the award, she warned against the dangers of a culture of intolerance perpetuated by those distorting Hinduism and encouraged by the silence of the present government, triggering a rise in incidents of brutal killings. This ’unmaking of India’ she explains is against its rich cultural diversity and ethos and also goes against the constitution which guarantees liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. She also questioned the silence of the elite and of high intellectual bodies like Sahitya Akademi which failed to take notice of brutality around despite M.M. Kalburgi, one of the victims of the hate crime, being an award winner of the prestigious body himself. Sahgal has thus not only called spade a spade but showed that where the government fails to protect the rights of citizens and instead busies itself in altering the very idea of India, and where political alternatives have been discarded with utter dismay, the onus lies on the civil society to fill the vacuum created by silences with rationality and opposition against all forms of brutality. What she has done is not only register her protest but also shake the conscience of those with thinking ability, those shocked but silenced by the squeezing space for dissent, saffronising of political and social space and the marginalization of minorities.

India today is in dire need of a Citizens movement that can provide the direction. Unfortunately, since 1947, barring the dark days of Emergency, this need for an effective civil society has not been felt so immensely. Even during the Emergency, there were few from the intelligentsia and academic circles who opposed the brutal authority of Indira Gandhi and what she sought to do to the country in the garb of imposition of an unjustified Emergency. The media, deemed the fourth pillar of democracy, remained by and large silent with few exceptions. As Lal Kishen Advani, a Hindutva ideologue, famously mentioned, "when they asked the media to bend, it began to crawl." Today, that kind of imposition of Emergency, de-legitimised by the apex court, may not be possible but new idioms of excesses, brutality and centralized authority are being imposed through brazen and designed efforts to saffronise the country through every trick in an out of the book. Worse, that the media, pretty much state-ist in nature, fully dependent on corporate financing and culture of glamour, is even more spineless than it ever was in the past. There is little to expect from a media that informs and comments not on basis of truth and rationality but is dictated by the incentives it is offered from various quarters including the State. In such a dismal scenario, silence of the media and the other thinking and sane majority would be criminal. Nefarious designs that seek to induce brutality in the society in such a way that they become acceptable parts of life and also alter the very idea of India must be opposed at all costs. The media, intelligentsia and saner elements need to rise. Nayantara Sahgal has made one small effort. That effort would be rendered futile by the silence of the rest.

After Dadri, Writers Protest, Ask: ’Will The Real Mr Modi Please Stand Up?’
October 7, 2015 | Duration: 49 min, 15 sec ]


The above editorials from Daily News and Analysis, The Tribune and Kashmir Times are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use