With more than 40 Sahitya Akademi awardees returning their awards, council members of the Akademi resigning and similar forms of protests by artists and intellectuals has been dominating public discourse since a week now. The most shrill arguments that can be heard in the din take the concept of whataboutery to a new high. The divide in the public opinion is indeed sharp but the acrimonious debates on television and rants on Twitter ignore some very basic facts which I believe is necessary to really understand why intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals if it suits you) are so vociferous in their protests. Those criticizing the writers started with the argument that these writers were hardly popular as such and by making such a move they were only attempting to get bit into the spot light. When the numbers of rebel writers grew the argument was changed to them being beneficiaries of previous regimes' nepotism and were paying their dues to their original benefactor by turning this into a political campaign. This counter-charge has been aggressively made against them by some of the celebrities from the entertainment industry as well as the media though curiously enough, no questions are asked if they themselves are indulging in petty politics or not. Here are some of the charges made by the rebelling writers and intellectuals.
Charge #1 - Rising Intolerance In India
A reasonable person with an objective perspective would have to live in illusionary world to deny that past one year has seen an unprecedented rise in intolerance in the Indian society. Of course, every person need not condemn it or view it as wrong but denial is something that would be particularly difficult to express. Though subaltern mobilization of Hindutva forces has been going on for quite some time, the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, just on the outskirts of the national capital by a mob suspecting he had consumed beef, became a flash point. It was not an isolated incidence but it managed to capture the attention of the media and the people and soon the international media. But what followed was equally appalling, senior ruling party members reacted in a manner which virtually absolved the perpetrators or actively supported them. The local BJP MP and Union Culture Minister, labelled the lynching as "an accident" by some youths in a state of "excitement" while riot accused BJP MP Sangeet Som made inflammatory comments including suggesting the victim being guilty. Not to be outdone, the ruling Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan instead of apologizing for his government's failure to maintain law and order made an audacious comment about approaching the UN which would antagonize all Indians who continue to put their faith in the Indian Constitution and the establishment.Then as Dadri simmered, Gorakhpur BJP MP Yogi Adityanath's organization openly stated that they are going to help these marauding mobs with tan-man-dhan-gun (manpower-moral support-money-guns) which can only be described as shocking and disgusting.
More than a week later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did appeal to communities to fight poverty instead of fighting among ourselves and even expressed sadness over Dadri incident but the message seems to have gone unheeded. Apart from more lynching in other parts of the country including the states of Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. While the firebrand BJP leaders like Shakshi Maharaj continue to make provocative statements, even the BJP Haryana Chief Minister, Manohar Lal Khattar has been on record telling reporters that for Muslims to stay in India, they have to give up eating beef. BJP has tried disassociate itself from these comments but can it real convince the people that what Khattar stated is discordant with its core agenda? After all, this statement doesn't come in isolation but in a charged atmosphere where even the international media is reporting of rising intolerance in India. Add to that the fact several Sangh activists like Maya Kodnani, Babu Bajrangi convicted for mass murder are out on bail as is Samjhauta blast accused Aseemanand whose bail plea was not contested by the prosecution. So now Malegaon blast prosecutor Rohini Salian says that she was pressurized by NIA officers to go slow on the case of the blast accused, it becomes all the more believable. No wonder the violent right wing groups now operate without impunity and fear of law an order machinery.
Charge #2 - Anti-Intellectualism
From day 1, the NDA government has made it clear that it wanted to change/correct the historical and cultural narrative of India, which some of us also identify as "idea of India". As a government with sufficient mandate, it did have the power to bring this change but what it actually did was appoint people with very little credibility to councils and and as heads of respectable institutions. The glaring example is the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of FTTI. The students protested and went on strike which has been continuing since more than a year now. There have been lots of debates, discussion and op-eds and only consensus among the civil society,including people from film and television industry affiliated to the BJP, is that nobody except the government and Gajendra Chauhan himself have any doubts whatsoever over the latter being a fit candidate for the chairmanship of the FTTI. In another instance, the appointment of Pahlaj Nihlani as chief of Film Censor Board was seen as a mediocre appointment, somewhat validated by the fact that one of the first tasks he undertook was make a list of cuss words that should be banned in films. Similarly, senior ministers and the Prime Minister himself making assertions about ancient Indian's knowledge on cosmetic surgery, space travelling and the like without any empirical evidence to back it up was seen by many as a step backwards for a country that aspires to be one of world's leading technological power.
Charge#3 - Threat To Freedom of Expression
Nayantara Sehgal returning the Akademi award may have been the first instance of the masses noticing it especially since she tagged the Dadri lynching incident as one of her reasons for taking this step but this was definitely not the first one. Even before the Dadri lynching incident had taken place, renowned Hindi poet, Uday Prakash had returned his award dismayed by Akademi's reluctance to at least offer condolences over the assassination of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi, himself a Sahitya Akademi awardee. Of course he also raised the question of Dhabolkar assassination and the growing intolerance against freedom of expression in India. But, Uday Prakash's gesture hardly created the buzz that Nayantara Sehgal's gesture of returning the award did, except by then the ghastly murder of Mohammed Akhlaq by a mob for allegedly storing and consuming beef had become a talking point and it was natural for Sehgal to add this incidence to the manifestation of a culture of intolerance rising in India. This was followed by a drove of littérateurs who followed suit and returned the awards giving similar reasons.
Now, the government and its supporters have been alleging political conspiracy to malign the government but what would be prudent is to step back and take a look at the pattern of events of recent past. From assassinations of intellectuals like Marathi writer and Communist leader Govind Pansare, rationalist and anti-superstition activist Narendra Dhabolkar, Kannada writer Linganna Satyampet and Kannada scholar and writer MM Kalburgi, all of whom were on the wrong side of the right wing groups. In a similar manner the dropping of AK Ramanujan's essay, pulping of Wendy Doniger's book on Indian history opposed by the Hindutva groups were yet another aspect of muzzling dissent. Of course, except Kalburgi assassination, all of these incidents happened during the Congress led UPA reign and as such, the coalition stands guilty. In fact, the Congress has a history of appeasing the extremists from all communities, be it banning Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses or forcing MF Hussain to self-exile. The Congress followed a policy of appeasement, however, none of the fundamentalist groups making these demands have been affiliated to the Congress or various other regional parties not affiliated to the Sangh Parivar in the first place.
Now, some are likely to ask, why didn't this outrage begin during the UPA regime ? As I have mentioned above, the Congress is guilty of being opportunist in caving in to demands of fanatics but in case of these writers, those opposed to them were and continue to be right-wing Hindutva groups and since the NDA government assumed office, these groups have only been emboldened. Most of these writers have in the past protested against injustice and in society as well as the role of the government, they now sought to give it a new direction as the current rise in intolerance against freedom of expression is unprecedented. For instance, after the murder of MM Kulbargi, a Bajrang Dal office bearer tweeted expressing his happiness and also threatening another writer KS Bhagwan that he was the next target. Similarly, members of the Maharashtra based Sanatan Sansthan have been arrested for the murder of Pansare and media reports indicate that the organization not only rejects the Indian establishment but has also allegedly been giving arms training. Again, this organization existed during the rule of the coalition led by Congress both in the state and the centre, the party did nothing to ban this organization even after its members were convicted of carrying bomb attack in the parking lot of a theatre to protest against a play they wanted to stop from being screened. But it still remained a shadowy group.
However, in latter part of 2015, it is interesting to see spokespersons of this very group take part in television debates without even directly refuting charges of violence alleged to have been perpetrated by them. Further, telephone intercepts by the police revealed that the next target was the veteran Marathi journalist, Nikhil Wagle, who is known for his anti-extremist views. Then, there is the infamous incident of former Advani aide Sudheendra Kulkarni's face being painted black by the Shiv Sena in retaliation of him inviting former Pakistani foreign minister Kasuri to launch his book in Mumbai. The Sena, being part of the Maharashtra an the Central government could have seen to it that the permission for the function was never given, yet it chose to allow it and then resort to hooliganism to send a message that no should dare to disobey its diktat. And the Union Culture Minister's statement that he wishes to cleanse Indian culture of western influences is a clear evidence of the current dispensation's agenda to propagate a particular narrative using government machinery to monopolize India's literary and cultural movement. Now even world writers have come out with a statement of solidarity with Indian writers in PEN International's 81st Congress in Quebec City.
In such a situation, when the government calls this writers revolt a manufactured paper rebellion, it is clearly underestimating the fact that unlike writers of English language best-sellers and news columns, the Akademi writers write in regional languages and have a direct connect with the rural masses who form their inspiration as well as readers, and as such better understand India than the upwardly mobile masses ranting on social media. As for, celebrities like the immensely talented actor Anupam Kher, it confounds me how his visiting Salman Khan after his conviction in hit and run case which resulted in death of 1 person can be a demonstration of solidarity and camaraderie towards a fellow artist but Sahitya Akademi award winners' returning their awards after failure of the Akademi in passing a condolence message and condemning the murder of a fellow Akademi award winner and other writers be hypocrisy and petty politics !