In a sign of the deepening crisis, two more writers — Hindi author Krishna Sobti and Malayalam novelist Sarah Joseph — returned their Sahitya Akademi awards on Saturday while executive board member K Satchidanandan resigned from all bodies of the Akademi. Sobti also returned the Akademi’s fellowship, the highest honour of the premier institution.
The writers cited the recent Dadri lynching and the killing of Kannada author and Sahitya Akademi Award winner M M Kalburgi as the reasons for their decision.
Joining the growing protests, Malayalam short story writer P K Parakkadavu also said he would quit the Akademi membership while Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas said he would return the Maharashtra State Urdu Sahitya Akademi Award.
Referring to the Dadri incident and the subsequent statements by BJP ministers, Sobti told The Sunday Express that the country cannot afford another “Dadri and Babri”.
She also referred to the reported comment by Minister of State (External Affairs) Gen (retd) V K Singh against Hindi writers at the Vishwa Hindi Sammelan. “Mantri V K Singh ne kaha ki hum darukhor lekhakon ko bulana nahi chahte (Minister VK Singh said we do not want to invite alcoholic writers). And now they killed a writer. It is the biggest insult to intellectuals. This government does not want to give us a right to speak against them,” she said.
“The Akademi chief must take action or resign,” said Sobti.
When contacted, Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari told The Sunday Express that he “respects the feelings of writers, condemns fanaticism, but cannot make a statement against the government” as he “needs the approval of the executive board”.
Joseph said she had returned her Akademi award to protest against the “terror-like’’ situation prevailing in the country. “Writers are murdered and the right to eat what one wants is denied. This is a deliberate attempt to shatter the plurality of Indian society. As a writer, I have to strongly react to this. The Prime Minister remained silent for nine days after the Dadri incident. I am giving back the award in protest against the stand of the Union government,” she said.
Joseph had contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 as an AAP candidate. In his letter to Tiwari, Satchidanandan pointed to the Akademi’s failure to take a stand on Kalburgi’s death. “I had hoped that the Akademi would continue to uphold its liberal, open and democratic traditions. It was with this hope that I sent you a letter with the draft of a resolution expressing anguished concern at the dastardly murder of M M Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi awardee and erstwhile member. But to my great disillusionment, my letter as a member of the executive board did not even receive a reply from the Akademi, leave alone an active response,” he wrote.
“I am sorry that the Akademi has failed in its duty to stand with writers and uphold the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, a freedom which has been violated every day in recent times,” he wrote.
“Holding a ritual condolence meeting in a regional office, as the Akademi seems to have done, is hardly an adequate response to these recent attacks on the freedom of expression, followed by a series of murders of independent thinkers in different parts of the country. I am sorry to find that you think this is a ‘political issue’; to writers like me, this is an issue of our basic freedom to live, think and write,” he wrote.
“My conscience does not permit me to continue on its general council and its executive board. I hereby resign from all my positions in the Sahitya Akademi, including the convenorship of the English advisory board, and the membership of its several committees such as the finance committee, the grants committee and the building committee,” wrote Satchidanandan.
Abbas said Urdu writers are anguished over the Dadri incident. “Therefore, I decided to return the award. There are some other Urdu writers who want to return the award,” he said.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, Tiwari said he respected the feelings of writers but could not speak against the government. “We also condemn the attack on writers. But before making a statement against the government I need to consult the executive board. I will take up the issue at the board meeting of the Akademi,” he said.
When reminded that the meeting is in December, he said that if an emergency meeting is called it would invite an expenditure of Rs 15 lakh. “I urge writers not to return their awards,” he said.
The crisis began when Kalburgi was shot dead in Dharwad in August. Subsequently, Hindi author Uday Prakash returned his Akademi award saying that free speech was endangered under the NDA government. The situation worsened after the Dadri killing on September 28, where Mohammad Akhlaq was beaten to death over rumours that he had stored and consumed beef.
Earlier this week, English novelist Nayantara Sahgal, Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi and English writer Shashi Deshande returned their Akademi awards. Sahgal mentioned the incident in her letter and blamed the Prime Minister for remaining “silent on the reign of terror”. Vajpeyi questioned the silence of the “otherwise loquacious Prime Minister”, while Deshpande stated that in such a situation “silence is an abetment”. Several other writers have returned the awards of their state akademis.
“Efforts must be made to ensure that several writers come together and take a collective decision to return their awards,” said Akademi award winner and Hindi writer Manglesh.
— With inputs from Shaju Philip in Thiruvananthapuram