"All dictatorship is wrong. Any government that tries to destroy our democratic environment is wrong"- Nayantara Sahgal, writer
"I support #NayantaraSahgal and the many other writers protesting to the Sahitya Akademi. Alarming times for free expression in India" - Tweet by Salaman Rushdie, author
However, they won't say: the times were dark
Rather: why were their poets silent?
Autumn is quietly creeping into the capital. The sun is a mellow yellow and the air carries a hint of a chill. A cream-coloured building at the heart of the cultural mile in the capital—the Sahitya Akademi—has become the centre of protest; 26 and counting. Winter is not far away. And, it is likely to be a long, cold and discontented one.
It is war. Or, as historian Romila Thapar puts it, it certainly has dimensions of one. At stake, as writers have pointed out, is freedom, democracy and, more essentially, the fabric of India. The returning of the Sahitya Akademi award, which grabbed headlines with Nayantara Sahgal giving back hers, has steadily grown to, perhaps, acquire the proportions of a movement, sparking off the season of dissent.
No stranger to protest and opposition, Sahgal had resigned from the Sahitya Akademi advisory board for English during the Emergency. She wrote a letter asking the Akademi to speak up against censorship. It didn’t. So, she put in her papers. This time, it was again the silence that provoked her to return the award. “All dictatorship is wrong,” she says. “Any government that tries to destroy our democratic environment is wrong.”
This time, it is much darker, she says. The government has received its first resistance. Its opposition is not the Congress, but the public intellectual, as Romila Thapar says. Each day, more jump on to the return-the-award bandwagon. And what started as a protest against the attack on writers and the “assassination” of rationalists has become the platform for the unease that has been simmering quietly.
The Sahitya Akademi is under attack for not standing up for writers. The protests are now going beyond just the freedom of expression to embrace other aspects. Writer Ajmer Singh Aulakh returned his award to protest against the saffronisation of culture and communalism. Novelist Sarah Joseph returned hers in protest of the growing intolerance. Writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal from Kashmir gave back his award because minorities are feeling unsafe and threatened. Prominent Punjabi rationalist Megh Raj Mitter also returned the Punjab government's Shiromani Lekhak award in protest.
And, this is just the beginning. That trouble was brewing was only a matter of time. Poet K. Satchidanandan, along with other writers, had started Indian Writers Forum three months ago. “We had started a Facebook page," he says. “The attacks were on. What was happening in the cultural terrain was clear even before the killings. The cultural institutions like ICCR [Indian Council for Cultural Relations], ICHR [Indian Council of Historical Research] and NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training] were under threat.” The Indian Writers Forum, now a registered trust, has been preparing for battle. “Most of the writers who have returned the award are part of the forum. There have been voices, but most of them have been sporadic and not loud enough. We know that we are at risk, but we had to speak out,” he says.
The situation has forced even the usually quiet into the arena. From Kerala to Kashmir, writers and intellectuals have come out to create a chorus for change. Shashi Deshpande, who shuns the limelight, resigned from the Sahitya Akademi general council because she says not speaking up may become open encouragement for things to continue as they are. “Every gesture counts. I don’t see this as courage,’’ she says firmly. “There is an insidious way of a group that believes there is a certain idea of Indian culture. Religion has no place in public life.”
While the protests may be about freedom and the curbs on it, at the heart of the dissent lies a deeper question—the idea of India. The 'h' word has become dominant and eclipsed any other identity. “It is not religion, but pseudo religion,’’ says Sahgal. “It is the perversion of religion. I am Hindu and I don’t agree with the hindutva ideology that has made a travesty of religion.”
Dissent today comes at a price. There is, of course, the fear of being attacked. Perumal Murugan, the writer who faced a volley of criticism for his book One Part Woman, lives in fear for his life. Salman Rushdie, who tweeted in solidarity of Sahgal, found himself assaulted by thousands of hateful tweets. Hate mail comes with the territory and so does the abuse, as Thapar has put up with, but it also comes with virulent personal attacks. This, of course, is not unusual. “The threat to freedom of expression is not new,” says writer Ramachandra Guha. “I am distrusted by the Marxists, disliked by the Congress and detested by the BJP. It is mutual.” Attack on freedom may not be new—Rushdie was prevented from coming during the UPA regime—but the reaction that it seems to have triggered among the intellectuals certainly is.
Opposition isn’t about informed argument or logic. Like in the case of Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was attacked by the Shiv Sena with black paint for moderating Khurshid Kasuri’s book launch, it is petty, it is violent, and it is about shaming. Those who have chosen to express their displeasure by giving up their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, which now has a fat pile of protest letters, have found themselves accused of doing it for cheap publicity. And, the classic counter—the awards have been returned and not the money. “Dissent today is being taken to be a crime. It is Indian tradition that has encouraged dissent and promoted debate for millennia,” says poet Ashok Vajpeyi, who has returned a cheque for Rs.1 lakh along with the award. “Now this is being done in the name of Indian tradition. In a democracy, after all dissent has a very important role to play. Dissent is the core of democracy. For more than 60 years, anyone who dissents is suspicious, a criminal and entirely undesirable.”
“Writers are conscious of the people of society,” says Satchidanandan. “We have to speak. Even if we are not followed, we have to speak. I am not sure of the impact, but we have to speak.”
It was the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes who speaks up. Far from a fairytale, Hans Christian Andersen’s simple story is about the appeasement of those in power, in which everyone fails to point out the invisible outfit of a fashion-obsessed emperor—a trait he shares with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the myth of the shiny smart city, Swachh Bharat, it was three senior citizens—poet Uday Prakash, Sahgal and Vajpeyi. The question now is whether the voices of protest that are growing louder will become so loud that it will force the government out of its silence. “We must speak out in defence of each other,’’ urges Sahgal. “A lawyer or a doctor must speak up for people outside their sphere. Otherwise the voice will not be loud enough.”