By Shruti Sonal:
In his presidential address at the first convention of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (1936), the great writer Premchand talked about “The Purpose of Literature”, emphasizing the active social role of the writer. Almost eighty years after his observation, writers continue to be leading the protest against a growing culture of intolerance in the country. In the last few days, over 30 writers have returned their state awards to raise their voice against the changing secular fabric of the country. Eminent personalities like Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi and Rahman Abbas, after returning their Sahitya Akademi awards, questioned the growing communalisation of politics and shrinking space for expression of dissent. The silence of the Prime Minister in the wake of the Dadri lynching and cold blooded murders of rationalists like M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were condemned. If anything, the Shiv Sena’s recent antics of cancelling Ghulam Ali’s concert and spilling ink on Sudheendra Kulkarni to protest against ex-Pak minister Khurshid Kasuri’s book launch, has only further aggravated the frustration.
Sahgal in her passionate protest letter titled ‘The Unmaking of India: Why I Am Returning My Sahitya Akademi Award’, wrote – “In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all the Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award.” Because she happens to be Nehru’s niece, many alleged that her stance was politically motivated and questioned her silence after the 1984 riots. However, they chose to ignore the fact that she had also spoken out against the Emergency imposed by her cousin Indira Gandhi. Debate also erupted over whether returning an award is an act of dissent or mere disrespect to the organisation. It’s important to keep in mind that it has a symbolic value that allows the writers to exercise their social responsibility and question a system’s on-going practices. Be it Tagore returning the knighthood after Jallianwala Massacre of 1919 or newspapers publishing blank editorials to protest censorship imposed during emergency, writers have always taken key political stands. Moreover, even as BJP leaders like Arun Jaitley term it a “manufactured protest,” the writers are not alone in raising concerns.
The President and the Vice president of the nation too have emphasised on the need to protect the secular atmosphere and peaceful co-existence in the country. Moreover, the government cannot keep a distance by blaming the “fringe elements” for controversial actions when the Haryana C.M. makes a statement saying, “Muslims can live in this country but they will have to give up eating beef because the cow is an article of faith here.” Even as writers like Amitav Ghosh came out in support of the protesting writers, Taslima Nasreen accused them of “selective criticism”. Citing the silence surrounding the banning of her book ‘Lajja’ and forced exit from India, she termed the Indian model of secularism as being “pro-Muslims and anti-Hindu”. She said, “They protest against the acts of Hindu fundamentalists and defend the heinous acts of Muslim fundamentalists.” However, that would be an unfair accusation, for Salman Rushdie received immense support from the Indian writing community in the aftermath of the Satanic Verses controversy.
It’s important to keep in mind that this response is not born out of an anti-Modi or pro-minorities bias. It is the result of accumulation of growing dissent over a variety of repressive measures against individual freedoms. While the murder of Kalburgi took place in a Congress governed state, it was the Akhilesh Yadav government which failed to prevent the Dadri lynching. Neither censorship nor using communalisation as a tool for political gains is a practice exclusive to any party, as seen over the years. As the state attempts to encroach the privacy of its citizens by interfering in what we eat, what we hear and what we believe, it is but natural that socially conscious writers will raise their voice. It is the voice of those caught between promises of development on one hand and haunted by the cries of stifled voices on the other. It is the voice of those who want to move forward, without being held back by the monsters of the past. If those in power refuse to respond, the voice will only grow louder.