As more writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards on Monday to protest against the silence of the central government and the Akademi over the threat to free speech, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma struck back, saying, “If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, Sharma said: “This is an award given by writers to writers. It has nothing to do with the government. It is their personal choice to return it… we accept it.”
Meanwhile, the Akademi called an emergency meeting of its executive board on October 23 to discuss the situation.
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Kashmiri writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal, noted Gujarati poet Anil Joshi, Kannada writer Rahamath Tarikere and five writers from Punjab — Surjit Patar, Chaman Lal, Baldev Singh Sadaknama, Jaswinder and Darshan Buttar — on Monday joined the list of writers who have decided to return their Akademi awards, taking the total number to 23.
Besides, two Kannada writers, G N Ranganatha Rao and D N Srinath, returned Sahitya Akademi prizes for translation, while theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi award.
Booker winner Salman Rushdie also expressed solidarity with the writers and tweeted: “I support # Nayantara Sahgal and many other writers protesting to the Sahitya Akademi. Alarming times for free expression in India.”
Questioning the ideologies and motives of these writers, Sharma said: “Who are they, which ideology do they belong to should also be considered. This issue is also important. There have been so many riots earlier. When did they last return their awards?”
He said: “They are protesting against (Kannada writer M M) Kalburgi’s murder. We are with them in this protest. But they should know that law and order is a state subject. If they have any complaint, they should send it to the chief minister, home minister. They have not done that.”
In Vadodara, Joshi said: “The atmosphere has become hateful. There is no breathing space and no freedom of expression for literary writers. It is like losing oxygen because we are writers who wish for free breathing space. I do not need an oxygen cylinder in the form of awards… The attack on writers is unfortunate and has taken away the freedom of expression.” Joshi received the Akademi award in 1990 for his collection of essays.
“What is happening in India pains me. To return an award is the only way to express my resentment… As a person, I want live in a country that is secular, not one where freedom of speech and many religious identities are facing threat from communal forces,” said Khayal, who got the Akademi award in 1975.
“This is a wave of protest to safeguard the freedom to express our opinions… How can writers remain silent in this atmosphere of injustice,” said Punjabi writer Patar.
But some writers advised caution, saying they “may be playing into the hands of the government”. “I respect their sentiment. But if this (returning of award) happens for too long, the goverment may take over the Akademi. If the institution is gone, we are lost. We will lose everything we were fighting for. We may be playing into the hands of the government,” said Akademi awardee and senior Hindi writer Mridula Garg.
While she agreed that the Akademi needed to be strengthened, she questioned the method. “We are against the government, not against the Akademi. The Akademi has always been silent on such issues. Did it speak when Pash was killed or Man Bahadur Singh was killed. We insult the jury by returning the award,” she said.
The 27-member executive board, representing writers from 24 languages of the country, is set to discuss the Akademi’s response at its emergency meeting on October 23. “I will bring the issue before the board. I will act as per its directions,” said Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari.
Meanwhile, Konkani writer N Shivdas, who had returned his Akademi award on Sunday, today told The Indian Express that some Konkani writers who had received the Akademi award “have come together”. “On Wednesday, at least 15 recipients are expected to meet in Goa and decide the future course of action,” he said.
— With ENS inputs from Srinagar, Vadodara, Chandigarh and Pune.