Protesting “silence on recent intolerance” in the country, renowned literary critic and activist Ganesh Devy returned his Sahitya Akademi award on Sunday, joining the growing protest by litterateurs.
Devy, who had received the award in 1993, in a letter to Sahitya Akademi president Vishwanath Pratap Tiwari and vice-president Chandrashekhar Kambar said he was “dismayed” by the silence of the Akademi on the recent killing of Kannada scholar M M Kalburgi and “all that is happening to free expression in our country”.
“It is with utmost regrets that I would like to convey to you that I wish to return the 1993 Sahitya Akademi Award given in the category of books in English to my work, After Amnesia (1992). I do this as an expression of my solidarity with several eminent writers who have recently returned their awards to highlight their concern and anxiety over the shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion,” he said in the letter.
Awarded Padma Shri in 2014, Devy (65) questioned Tiwari and Kambar, who he has “personally known as my seniors and admired writings and imaginative powers”, on their silence during a Sahitya Akademi seminar in Nagpur, a week after the killing of Kalburgi on August 30.
The letter stated: “A week after his killing, I participated in a seminar organized by the Sahitya Akademi. in Nagpur. I was to preside over the inaugural session. I was quite dismayed to see that the seminar began without a word of reference to the recent attack on a scholar honored by the Akademi. Therefore, when my turn to speak came at the end of the session, I asked the audience if they would object to my observing a two minute silence to mourn the dastardly killing. Please note that all of them stood up in silence with me. If our writers and literary scholars had the courage to stand up in Nagpur, I fail to understand why at the Ravindra Bhavan there should be such a deafening silence about all that is happening to free expression in our country.”
He, however, noted that eminent writers have expressed “concern in their statements”.
Later talking to The Indian Express, Devy said: “My returning this Award is not without reference to the larger situation of growing intolerance. Today, social media platforms are used by humans who have thoughts to communicate. But, it also has a speed with which communication disappears. We have encouraged intolerance in the name of self-purification of religion and culture. The same social media in another atmosphere can play a constructive healing effect.”
He noted that the Sahitya Akademi is located at Ravindra Bhavan in New Delhi, named after Rabindranath Tagore, who penned the famous poem ‘Where the mind is without fear.’
Devy’s letter urged Tiwari and Kambar to assure writers in the country of support from the Akademi. “May I make bold to say that your moment of reckoning has come? I hope you will give this country the assurance that it is the writers and thinkers who have come forward to rescue sense, good-will, values, tolerance and mutual respect in all past ages.
Had this not been so, why would we be remembering the great saint poets who made our modern Indian languages what they are today? The great idea of India is based on a profound tolerance for diversity and difference. They far surpass everything else in importance. That we have come to a stage when the honourable Rastrapatiji 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,” the letter stated.
Devy recalled his visit to Dharwad in the first week of August, three weeks before the killing of Kalburgi, to deliver a lecture at the first memorial of literary author V K Gokak, a former president of the Sahitya Academi. “When I gave the Gokak lecture, Dr. Kalburgi was still alive. Alas, he had to fall to the forces of intolerance. Gokak was the Principle of Willingdon College, Sangli, Maharashtra, during the years of the Independence movement. On one occasion, when the police came to arrest students, he stood at the entrance of the college, blocked their entry and asked them to first arrest him before they touched the students. It was this kind of concern for freedom that he brought to the institutions he headed. I hope you do not think that he was not sufficiently pragmatic,” Devy stated.
Devy was professor of English at Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao Universty and founder of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre from where he recently stepped down. He also founded Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh for the study of tribal communities in Gujarat and is the Chair of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which researched and documented 780 living Indian languages.
Devy graduated from Shivaji University in Kolhapur, Maharashtra and held fellowships at the University of Leeds and Yale University.