Nine writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards on Sunday in protest against the organisation’s silence on the recent killing of a man in Dadri over rumours of cow slaughter and the murder of author M M Kalburgi, allegedly for his rationalist views.
The latest string of protests took to 15 the number of writers who have returned their awards to the Akademi since Hindi writer Uday Prakash first did so last month over the killing of Kalburgi. Also on Sunday, Kannada author Aravind Malagatti submitted his resignation from the Akademi’s General Council.
Those who returned their awards on Sunday included Hindi poets Mangalesh Dabral and Rajesh Joshi; Vadodara-based Ganesh Devy; Konkani writer N Shivdas; Kannada writer Kum Veerabhadrappa; and Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, Ajmer Singh Aulakh, Atamjit Singh and Waryam Singh Sandhu from Punjab.
“We clearly see a threat to our democracy, secularism and freedom. There have been attempts to curb free speech earlier also, but such trends have become more pronounced under the present government. These are visible all over,” said Dabral and Joshi in a joint statement sent to The Indian Express.
In his letter to Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, Devy said that he was returning his award “as an expression of solidarity with several eminent writers who have recently returned their awards to highlight their anxiety over the shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion”.
Questioning the silence of the Akademi on the killing of Kalburgi, Devy wrote: “A week after his killing, I participated in a seminar organised by the Sahitya Akademi. I was quite dismayed to see that the seminar began without a word of reference to the recent attack on a scholar honoured by the Akademi.”
Devy told The Indian Express that it’s ironical that the Akademi is located in Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi, named after Rabindranath Tagore who wrote the poem titled “Where the mind is without fear”.
In his letter to the Akademi, he wrote: “That we have come to a stage when the honourable Rashtrapatiji (President Pranab Mukherjee) had to remind the nation that these must be seen as non-negotiable foundations of India should be enough of a reason for the Sahitya Akademi to act.”
Returning his award, playwright Atamjit Singh said that “whatever is happening in the country is really painful”.
Calling on writers to join hands “against this religious and creative intolerance”, playwright and theatre director Ajmer Singh Aulakh said: “Our freedom of independent thinking has been violated, and the Prime Minister, chairperson (Akademi) and others have remained silent.”
Bhullar said he was forced to return the award because “literature and culture have become targets of calculated attacks which made me concerned and restless.”
“This is true that in recent decades none of the governments have a clean slate on this account. Still, it needs to be differentiated that earlier governments… generally avoided being overt or covert agent provocateurs. Now it has become crystal clear that violent regressive forces dictating terms in the field of literature and culture are implementing an undeclared agenda,” he said.
Konkani writer Shivdas said during a rally in Goa that he was returning this award as no action was taken against Sanatan Sanstha, an outfit whose members were allegedly involved in the killing of rationalists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.
Veerabhadrappa returned the award he won in 2007, saying he condemned the Akademi’s “silence” over the killing of Kalburgi and the Dadri lynching.
Several other writers expressed their concern over “the growing intolerance”: Punjabi writer Megh Raj Mitter returned Shiromani Lekhak, the Punjab government’s highest award for writers; English poet Adil Jussawalla wrote a letter to the Akademi president questioning his silence; Aman Sethi returned the Akademi’s ‘Yuva Puraskar’; and Adabi Markaz Kamraz (AMK), a body of more than 1,100 writers in Kashmiri, asked Akademi award winners from the valley to “stand up and support the writers who have emerged as a light at the end of a dark tunnel”.
Sahgal hits back at Akademi chief
Meanwhile, author Nayantara Sahgal has responded to remarks made by Tiwari on her returning the Akademi award by asking if the organisation has, “like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of its responsibility to safeguard our Constitutional right to freedom of speech?”
Sahgal was responding to Tiwari’s remarks published in The Indian Express on October 7 that her “Award-winning book has been translated into several Indian languages”. “She earned all the profits. She can now return all the Award money, but what of the credibility and goodwill she earned through the Award?” Tiwari had said.
Expressing her anguish over the comments, Sahgal wrote: “I have considered the Award a high honour, but my ‘credibility’ had been established decades before 1986 through my long career as a writer, as had the ‘goodwill’ and recognition I have received over many years in India and abroad.”
She added: “You have mentioned ‘profits’. The Award in 1986 would perhaps have been Rs 25,000, but not more than Rs 50,000. In consultation with Ashok Vajpeyi, who has also returned his Award, I am enclosing a cheque for one lakh rupees,” she wrote.
(With inputs from ENS in Ahmedabad, Pune, Chandigarh and Srinagar)