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Another Sahitya Akademi Awardee Returns His Award, Pens This Emotional Open Letter

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Dear Dr. Vishwanath Tewari,

With a sense of anguish, I have sent my covering letter along with a cheque for Rs 15000, which I received from Sahitya Akademi in 2002 as part of National Translation Prize for 2001, on a book-‘Samay O; Bhai Samay‘- a collection of poems by Punjabi poet Pash. Why I have to do it, I wish to explain here –

Receiving Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize from Ramakant Rath-19-08-02

1. Udai Prakash, Hindi writer took lead in the matter of Sahitya Akademi not holding a customary condolence meeting in its Delhi office for the murder/death of Prof. M. M. Kalburgi, Kannada language Sahitya Akademi award winner and a former Vice Chancellor. They kept mum over it and in protest Udai Prakash returned the award given to him by Sahitya Akademi. Innumerable writers, including many Sahitya Akademi award winners, appreciated Udai Prakash’s stand and expressed solidarity with his step, I did as well.

2. Writers were expecting some sensitivity on the issue from Sahitya Akademi, however, Akademi kept a stony silence over the issue, which resulted in some more writers taking the step of returning their awards in protest, notably Ashok Vajpayee. Even then the Akademi did not respond to writers’ concerns, and then came the decision of Nayantara Sehgal to return the award, who referred not only to the concerns of writers, she even referred to the overall attack on Nehruvian concepts of scientific temper, liberal thought and particularly the growing menace of communal violence in which an innocent person was brutally killed in mob fury with a false rumour technique. Nayantara Sehgal is the niece of founder Chairman of Sahitya Akademi and first Prime Minister of the country Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Rather than paying attention to the 88-year-old author, Sahitya Akademi President ridiculed her in the most undignified manner, and trolls of the ruling party with patronisation from communal hatred groups attacked her viciously. And Nayantara Sehgal responded with a writer’s dignity. Rather than paying back the Rs 25000 award money, she returned Rs. 1 lakh to cover for any royalties, if any, paid to her from her award-winning novel’s translations. Krishan Sobti, one of most celebrated Hindi writer, holder of not only Sahitya Akademi award, but also the highest honour of ‘Fellowship’ of Akademi, returned both to protest against such undignified behaviour of Akademi, at the age of 90 years. Still no sense of shame or penance on behalf of Akademi!

3. Then came the decision of eminent Punjabi fiction writer Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, which troubled my conscience even more, as looking at the daily events, I was feeling that now the issue has not remained confined to just Akademi’s insensitive behaviour, there is wider Government patronisation to Akademi’s such conduct, as has been happening in the case of Film Institute in Pune, where despite widest possible protest by eminent film personalities, central government has shown utter contempt for them, and writers saw the same pattern in Sahitya Akademi’s conduct. The recent case of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is still fresh in the minds of writers/intelligentsia, where the government has tried to destroy one of the most respected institution and Nehru’s legacy of historicism and scientific knowledge. All these issues, as earlier destructions of organisations like National Book Trust (NBT), Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) made Sahitya Akademi return of awards as symbols of protest against the oppression of knowledge and freedom of ideas.

It is true that Sahitya Akademi awards are not related to express such broad protest against the overall stifling of society and diversity of Indian cultures. Return of Padma awards would have been more appropriate on behalf of writers/scholars to register their protest. And Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana has done exactly that today. Those who tell writers that rather than returning awards in such large numbers, they should have registered their protests by other means. For such opinions, one sees the reality of protests against Film Institute appointment or other issues, where scholars/writers have protested through statements, petitions, dharnas etc., nothing has worked, so the return of Sahitya Akademi awards has now become a symbol of wider protest against increasing communalism, intolerance, saffronisation of institutions, suppression of rational ideas and scientific temper. It is not just a protest of writers, this has turned protest against suppressed voice of all cultural fields and scholarly rational ideas. The case of Perumal Murugan, the Tamil writer also comes to mind, whose creative voice was killed by hatred led forces, yet Sahitya Akademi did not utter a word in support of the author. Even if he was not an awardee of the Akademi, he was and is an eminent Tamil author, whose suppression of voice in the form of his withdrawing from writing should have been the concern of Sahitya Akademi, a body of writers and literature.

4. So many Punjabi writers followed Gurbachan Bhullar’s lead, it made me even more troubled, as I was thinking that my Sahitya Akademi Prize is too little in reference to award returnees and it may just look like an act of bravado and publicity. When Waryam Sandhu, Ajmer Aulakh, Surjit Patar and more returned their awards, I could not remain aloof from them. Pash, Patar, Waryam Sandhu and I have been part of a progressive humanist values movement in literature from seventies, which always protested against any social or state repression through writings. I, as a Hindi translator of Pash’s work, could not keep his poetry – a burning symbol of protest separated from Waryam Sandhu or Surjit Patar’s writings even in reference to the return of award money. By returning this prize amount and honour, I am upholding the spirit of Pash’s poetry and his and mine solidarity with the writers of same times and movements.

5. This is a moment of crisis and choices have to be made clearly – and I stand with my fellow writers of Punjabi as well as other languages, who have taken the side of suffering humanity and spoken against the patronisation of communal hatred, attack on institutions of knowledge, attack on freedom of ideas and their expression fearlessly. I will be guilty to the spirit of Pash’s poetry, if I don’t honour it, which I have translated and it is Pash, whose poetry was honoured in translation. So to remain true to the spirit of Pash’s liberating humanist poetry, I join my fellow writers in returning this prize money and honour given to me by Sahitya Akademi in the form of National Translation Prize in year 2002, for the year of 2001.

I hope my cheque sent by speed post today, shall reach you in a day or two. I surely feel unburdened after sending it, as many other writers have also felt. It is an irony that Sahitya Akademi, a great institution is taking such shape, where returning an award has become more respectable and honoured act than receiving an award! This situation is also a reply to the taunt of culture minister as well as Akademi President, who had tried to belittle the writer status of Nayantara Sehgal by saying that ‘she has got fame and money from Akademi Award’! It is not the writers, it is Akademi who is now reduced to indignity and it has to do a lot to repair the damage it has done to itself by not siding with the authors and playing to the tunes of an oppressive government.
With regards to the editor of Hindi journal ‘Dastavez‘, brought out by Dr. Vishwanath Tewari from Gorakhpur long ago!

Chaman Lal
Retired Professor, JNU, New Delhi

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