The most significant literary event in Indian this year was not a new book, though there have been scads of interesting releases. Rather, it was a spate of returns, the award wapsi movement which originated in Indian literature and, much later, spilled over into other creative domains and the sciences. It bore two gifts for contemporary politics — the idea that principled rejection by a small but respected group of people can still devastate the authority of government, and the idea of “intolerance”, newspeak for what used to be called impunity, which may be reembered as the defining word of the year.
The unstudied, unselfconscious and rather unbelievable reactions of the government cast a pitiless light on its complete incapacity to even understand the literary world. First, award wapsi was dismissed as an elite conceit, presumably on the ground that Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece Nayantara Sahgal was among the first movers. But apart from a tiny minority, Sahitya Akademi winners are not the sort of individuals which banks like to pursue with credit card offers. They are stars in their language domains and enjoy tremendous prestige and political weight, but almost all of them work at ordinary jobs and live in middle-class apartments. And when they are sued by the empire of hurt feelings, they often find it impossible to pay the bills.
The government’s counter-attack was led by Arun Jaitley, who dismissed the movement as a “manufactured rebellion”. He is the only member of the cabinet who can be credibly accused of any experience of the world of letters, if only because his circle of friends is large and inclusive. But even he has no idea that that world is so deeply fractured, especially in Delhi, that if writers come together, they are more likely to conspire against each other than against third parties.
Top honours for unintended irony went to Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the PMO, who said that traditionally, writers have been agents of unity rather than division. Indeed, writers handed back their awards with admirable unity of purpose, ignoring the few in their community who denounced this as an illegitimate form of protest, making the rather precious point that awards are given by the state, and there is no point agitating against it.
Curiously, only Sitaram Yechury drew attention to the origins of returned honours, which lie in the freedom movement. Following the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi flung back a knighthood and a Kaiser-e-Hind medal respectively at the Raj. Of course, it would have been deeply problematic if anyone recalled this. It would suggest that Indian writers see the present government as an occupying power, rather than a legitimate recipient of the people’s mandate.
Perhaps, the most surprising reaction from government and its external supporters was the advice that writers were letting down the side by meddling in politics — they should stay put and write. That betrayed two interlinked delusions: that literature has nothing to do with politics, and that politics consists of winning elections, a skill best left to politicians. This government came to office with the mandate of altering politics in its widest sense, but it now seems to be incapable of even understanding the issues involved. The state has played an enabling role for Indian literature since the founding of the Sahitya Akademi, but should the government remain engaged if its ignorance of literary matters has assumed monumental proportions? This particular government has not even been able to engage writers in a conversation — they complained that there was no one in the cabinet whom they could speak to.
But politics is more about institutions than individuals, we are taught. When political forces opposed to the Modi wave were in disarray, they had feared that the huge mandate won by the NDA would dredge up old, lost projects to change the idea of India. They had sought comfort in the strength of India’s institutions, which could be counted on to stand the strain.
Indeed, beef became a killing matter, a fledgeling martyrology of Nathuram Godse developed and a single window miraculously opened by which difficult people could be sent to Pakistan. But institutions did not stand up. They were taken over, infiltrated or comatose. Rather, it was the individual who stood up. Without the need for urging, the writers who returned their awards performed the central function of literature as political corrective, which has been somewhat eclipsed by the contemporary culture of literature as performance and celebration. In fact, the instinctive ease with which writers went critical was what took the government by surprise.
Ironically, this is the first government whose arrival was heralded by a book by its prime ministerial candidate. Narendra Modi’s short story collection Abode of Love, written in the Emergency period, and helpfully annotated by Gujarati writers and editors when it appeared in 2014, drew initial interest. But the few who read the stories, rather than the notes and quotes, must have understood, especially in the light of 2015, that it was not exactly a literary manifesto.