Soon after Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, president of the Akademi, pleaded that writers must not politicise the institution. “If the Sahitya Akademi jumps in and protests against the restriction of the freedom of speech then will it not divert from its primary work?”, Tiwari wondered. At least one illustrious past head of the Akademi — Jawaharlal Nehru — thought it was important for the institution to speak out when the freedom of speech and expression was under threat.
When the Nobel committee chose Russian poet Boris Pasternak for the literature prize in 1958, the Soviet authorities were not amused. The prize was for Pasternak’s “notable achievement in both contemporary poetry and the field of the great Russian narrative tradition”. But officials singled out Dr Zhivago, an elegiac novel that refused to celebrate the Soviet system. “It is indeed a great achievement to have been able to complete under difficult circumstances work of such dignity, high above all political party frontiers and rather apolitical in its entirely human outlook,” an official elaborated on the choice of Pasternak and Dr Zhivago for the prize.
The manuscript of Dr Zhivago had been smuggled out of Moscow, and was first published by an Italian publisher associated with the communist party of Italy. Moscow had tried to pressure the Italian communists to get the publication stalled. As the prize got sucked into Cold War politics, the Soviet authorities forced Pasternak to refuse the prize. His survival in Moscow became tenuous. That was when Nehru stepped in.
In his biography of Nehru, Sarvepalli Gopal described the events thus: “When the Soviet government refused to allow Boris Pasternak to receive the Nobel Prize, Nehru, claiming to act more in his capacity as the Chairman of the Sahitya Akademi than as prime minister, conveyed, again informally, to Moscow his feeling that the injustice which was being done to Pasternak would damage the prestige of the Soviet Union. In whatever capacity Nehru professed to function, his views carried weight and the Soviet authorities assured him that there was no reason to fear for Pasternak; he was free, if he wished to leave the Soviet Union to experience the delights of the capitalist paradise.”
On November 7, 1958, Nehru called a press conference in Delhi and declared that the Soviet attitude towards Pasternak “pained us somewhat” because it was entirely opposed to India’s position. “A noted writer, even if he expressed views which conflicted with the dominant ones in his country, should be respected rather than subjected to any kind of restrictions,” Nehru said.
What Gopal did not record and, perhaps, did not know, was that five well-known Malayalam writers, including P Kesava Dev and C N Sreekantan Nair, had sent a telegram to the prime minister asking him, as chairman of the Sahitya Akademi, to invite Pasternak to India.
In his memoirs, Yevgeny Pasternak writes that (Boris) Pasternak “would have been exiled straight away, but for Jawaharlal Nehru, who phoned [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev and said he would head the committee for Pasternak’s protection”. India, though non-aligned in the Cold War, was friendly with the Soviet Union. Nehru had visited the USSR in 1955 and Khrushchev travelled to India the following year. With Soviet cultural diplomacy in the doldrums, any further intervention by Nehru would have deeply embarrassed Moscow. The Indian prime minister, perhaps, saved Pasternak from exile, but the Zhivago affair drained the great poet. He died two years later, weeks after turning 70. Nehru had presented him a clock on his 70th birthday.
Years later, Khrushchev, in retirement, read a Samizdat copy of Dr Zhivago that his son gave him. “We shouldn’t have banned it,” he said. In his memoirs, he expressed regret for the ban.
In his October 8 letter protesting the Akademi’s silence on the attacks on writers, Malayalam writer Anand recalled the Zhivago case. “We, in the past, had the courage to speak up for the cause of freedom of speech. Why not today for our own people?” wrote Anand, author of novels like Marubhoomikal Undakunnathu (Desert Shadows), which exposed the tyranny of the authoritarian state.
“Assault on intellectuals, freethinkers and writers by organised extremist groups has become frequent these days… Such incidents should not be taken as isolated instances, but as an organised and planned assault on intellectual activity and the freedom of expression. The presence of general intolerance and exclusiveness permeating all walks of life… forces us to consider these as reflections of the same atmosphere,” Anand wrote. “…I as a writer, feel that in the present context, the Akademi should not remain silent but should express its concern on the growing trend of intolerance and violence…,” he said.
Anand wrote the letter after his appeals days after Narendra Dabholkar was killed, and again in September last year, calling for a response, were ignored.
In her communication, Shashi Deshpande described the Akademi’s silence as “a form of abetment”. “This is the right time for writers to reclaim their voices. But we need a community of voices, and this is where the Akademi could serve its purpose and play an important role. It could initiate and provide space for discussion and debate in public life. It could stand up for the rights of writers to speak and write without fear; this is a truth all political parties in a democracy are supposed to believe in,” she wrote.
The many writers who have raised their voice against the attack on free speech are calling for a reimagining of public institutions like Sahitya Akademi as independent moral spaces to censure rogue ideologies, and check the rise of hate and intolerance in society. In a way, they are demanding that the Akademi recognise the liberal ideals that led to its founding. The Akademi’s silence has come to mirror the complicity of the state in nurturing a climate of hate and fear.
History teaches that writers create and protect the morality of civilisations. They speak for the people when the rulers slip. Vyasa in the Mahabharata said destruction follows when dharma is not practised. Bhakti literature exposed the inhumanness of the caste system and offered a new morality. In recent times, Shivaram Karanth protested the Emergency by returning his Padma Bhushan, and many others went to prison.
The great Malayalam poet, Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, once described poets as the “sowvarna pratipaksham” (the elite opposition). When writers speak out, rulers should probably be listening.
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