The Sahitya Akademi row: All you need to know

Indian Express explains the issues in the unprecedented rebellion by the cream of India’s literary talent, and who this firestorm might end up singeing.

Written by Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Updated: October 14, 2015 8:57 am
Sahitya Akademi, Sahitya Akademi winners, Sahitya award winners, Akademi winners, Sahitya Akademi news, sahitya akademi news, indian express, India news The Sahitya Akademi is India’s premier institution of letters, with a stated commitment to “promoting Indian literature throughout the world”.

What is the Sahitya Akademi, and the Sahitya Akademi Award?

The Sahitya Akademi is India’s premier institution of letters, with a stated commitment to “promoting Indian literature throughout the world”. The Akademi was established by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also its first chairperson, and inaugurated on March 12, 1954. Every year, the Akademi announces awards for authors of works of outstanding literary merit in Indian languages. Awards are currently given for 24 languages; the most recent additions being Bodo and Santhali in 2005. Awards in English began in 1960 — the first recipient was R K Narayan for his novel The Guide. Over the years, the Akademi has introduced other awards such as the Bhasha Samman, Yuva Sahityakar and Bal Sahitya Puraskar.

The first awards were given in 1955. The award amount was initially Rs 5,000, and has been gradually raised — it has been Rs 1 lakh since 2009. The Akademi is under the central government’s Ministry of Culture, but works as an autonomous institution. To be eligible, “the book must be an outstanding contribution to the language and literature to which it belongs”. It may be “a creative or a critical work”, but must not be a work of translation, an anthology, an abridgement, compilation or annotation, or university research paper. A committee of three writers, selected by the Akademi president out of a panel of seven names recommended by the Language Advisory Board, chooses the awardee in each language.

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What does a Sahitya Akademi honour mean for a winner?

Despite occasional controversies in the Akademi’s functioning, the main award remains, after the Jnanpith, the most prestigious and coveted literary honour in India. The Akademi gets the winning book translated into several Indian languages, which ensures a wide readership, and organises programmes for the winners in several parts of the country. As it enhances the prestige of the winner, the award also cements the credibility of the Akademi — the honour is in effect recognition for an outstanding original work that already had its readers.

So, who are returning the award now, and why?

Nearly 25 writers have returned their awards protesting against what they believe is a climate of rising intolerance in the country under the present central government. The first to return his award was Hindi writer Uday Prakash on September 4, protesting against the murder, a few days earlier, of Kannada Sahitya Akademi winner M M Kalburgi. Nearly a month later, two literary giants, Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi, returned their awards last week, and were followed by two veteran women authors, Krishna Sobti and Shashi Deshpande. Sahgal said “India’s culture of diversity” and the “right to dissent” was under “vicious assault”. Since then, the pent-up anger of the literary community has appeared to have boiled over, with new authors joining the rebellion almost every day.

What does “returning the award” mean? What exactly are they returning? How?

Some have returned the award amount along with a formal letter to the Akademi. A few others have sent letters, but have not enclosed cheques. Some have just announced their decision, but are yet to formally inform the Akademi. No one has returned the award citation or trophy so far. As events unfold rapidly across the country, the writers seem to be responding instinctively to an atmosphere of protest — a coordinated or concrete mode of action is yet to take shape.

The Akademi is confounded. To accept the cheques would mean the money would have to go back to its coffers. This involves a procedure, and requires the approval of the Executive Board. The cheques and the letters are still awaiting their fate at the Akademi.

What is the significance of the writers’ protest?

While the Culture Ministry has remained unruffled, returning the Akademi award is a major statement, considering that hardly anyone has done so in the last six decades. Writers from across the country have accused the Akademi of having failed to perform its duty as the custodian of literary freedom. It is a severe indictment, and a powerful blow to the Akademi’s moral standing. The writers want the Akademi to speak up against the establishment, something that the Akademi’s chairperson has been unable to do so far. This raises questions about the Akademi’s autonomy, and suggests, fairly or unfairly, that it is under pressure from the government.

A protest by writers or artists is not the same as a dharna by a political party. A community that works closely with metaphors can be expected to protest through symbols. Critics have derided these writers as inconsequential — women and men of whom very few have even heard, let alone reading their work. By its very nature, however, literature would have significantly fewer readers than popular, mass-produced books — and the fact that not many would have read or heard about Gora or Ek Chithra Sukh or Samskara does not diminish the greatness of either these works or of their authors, Rabindranath Tagore, Nirmal Verma, or U R Ananthamurthy.

Some have questioned the politics and motivation of the writers, saying they are returning “awards given to them by the Congress”. However, Hindi poets Mangalesh Dabral and Rajesh Joshi, and Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu received their awards when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government was in power, and Punjabi writer Jaswinder was honoured last year, the first year of Narendra Modi in Delhi.

What happens now?

The Akademi is under great pressure, and has called an emergency meeting of its Executive Board on October 23 to discuss the situation. The announcement of this year’s awards is just about a month away. If the rebellion continues, that might be jeopardised. Some writers have also pointed out that if the controversy ends up destroying the authority of the Akademi, it might prompt the government to take it over, thus destroying everything that the protesters have been fighting for.