Literary Hub, April 3, 2017
India’s Nationalist Assault on Intellectuals and Students’: On Campus Activism Amid a Culture of Oppressionby Basharat Peer
"On an August 2015 morning, two young men on a motorcycle stopped outside the home of Malleshappa Kalburgi, a 78-year-old literature scholar in the town of Dharwad in the southern state of Karnataka. One rider stayed on the bike while the other walked up to Kalburgi’s door and introduced himself as a former student. Kalburgi had been the vice-chancellor of Kannada University, and he was famous for his critique of superstition and conservative practices, which angered Hindu extremists. After a brief conversation, the “student” fired at Kalburgi with a pistol, hitting him in the chest and forehead, and escaped on the waiting motorcycle.
The assassination of Kalburgi was the third murder of an Indian intellectual in two years. In February 2015, Govind Pansare, an 81-year-old Communist politician and writer, was entering his house after a morning walk with his wife in Kolhapur town in western state of Maharashtra. Two men on a motorbike, their faces covered with stoles, stopped on the street and repeatedly shot him with a pistol. He died in a hospital four days later. In August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a 67-year-old doctor and rationalist thinker, who like Kalburgi had campaigned against superstition and black magic for decades, was on his morning walk in Pune, a few hours from Pansare’s home, when two men shot him point-blank and escaped on a motorbike. After Dhabolkar’s murder, an anonymous letter had threatened Pansare. “You will meet the fate of Dhabolkar,” it had said.
Uday Prakash, a 65-year-old writer who is one of India’s finest novelists, was in Anuppur, his village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh when he heard of Kalburgi’s killing. Prakash had recently arrived from a suburb of Delhi, where he spends half his time. The talk in Delhi about the nation’s booming economy, Modi’s plans to turn India into a manufacturing hub, and building “smart cities” all over the country, grated on him. A famine was raging through hundreds of villages.
Most villagers are subsistence farmers who depend on a single crop—rice. The harvest that year had failed. Prakash knew that desperate poverty first hand. He had left his village as a teenager after his parents died and worked as a construction worker, a farmhand, and an errand boy, all the while educating himself, eventually becoming a journalist and writer in Delhi. Years later, after he found literary success, he had returned home and began living there for a few months of the year. “All around me people didn’t have food to eat,” Prakash said. His village is near the border of the state of Chattisgarh, where a Maoist-led insurgency has been raging for several years. Prakash said that sympathy toward the poor gets a person branded as a “Maoist terrorist.” “I was living with a feeling that borders are being created everywhere in the country,” he told me. Since Modi came to power, Prakash had been feeling fearful, as if India had undergone a societal shift. Kalburgi’s murder was the third Indian intellectual in two years, and it rattled him. “India has always had riots, but the targeted killings of intellectuals and dissidents is a new thing,” he said.
He called a fellow writer to speak about the murder, and his friend had reached out to the academy of letters and found it hadn’t even sent a message of condolences to Kalburgi’s family. “Sahitya Academy Awards are supposedly given to a writer to honor him for outstanding work. It is an award I had received. One of us is killed and they don’t even say a word,” Prakash recalled.
“For a while now, writers, artists, thinkers, and intellectuals in our country have faced violent, insulting behavior,” Prakash posted on his Facebook page. “This is not the time to stay silent, seal our lips, and hide in safety somewhere. If we choose that, it is going to get more dangerous. In protest against the murder of Mr. Kalburgi, with humility, and with great concern I return the Sahitya Academy Award granted to me in 2010-11 for my novel Mohandas. I am in my village at the moment. I will reach Delhi by September 6 or 7 and will return my award certificate and prize money.”
The Hindi language newspapers, which sell tens of millions of copies and mostly lean right, greeted his decision with mostly silence and some derision. The liberal English press interviewed him. A month passed. Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched to death in Bishara village outside Delhi. India had reached a tipping point.
Nayantara Sahgal, an 88-year-old novelist and essayist who had won the national academy award for her novel Rich Like Us in 1986, and whose uncle, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had established the Sahitya Akademi in 1954, decided to follow Prakash’s example and returned her Akademi prize. “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror,” she wrote in a statement she titled “The Unmaking of India.” “We must assume he dares not alienate evildoers who support his ideology.”
A dam of reticence and fear broke. In a few weeks, five writers on the board of the Akademi resigned; 35 writers from across India returned their awards in protest against a growing climate of intolerance."