If there is one thing that the writers’ revolt has proved it is that freedom of expression in India has never been more robust. Once Nehru’s niece set the revolt in motion, forgotten old fossils came forward to return awards nobody knew they had and every one of them got their fifteen minutes of fame. They made newspaper headlines and appeared on prime time chat shows, no matter how stupid and unthinking their assertions. Some very stupid things were said. Writers who would have been adults during the Emergency said that the atmosphere of ‘intolerance’ today was worse than it was then. Really? How many of them have been jailed for saying this?
How easily they have forgotten that there was total press censorship then and that journalists defying it went to jail. How easily they have forgotten that writers and poets shared prison cells with political leaders who opposed Mrs. Gandhi. How easily they have forgotten the communal tensions that spread because Mrs. Gandhi’s son took charge of a family planning programme that forcibly sterilized men, young and old, and that Muslim men were specially targeted. How easily they have forgotten that medieval Muslim quarters like Turkman Gate in old Delhi were turned to rubble by bulldozers, and that this caused communal violence because of rumours that senior municipal officials said they would not allow ‘another Pakistan’ to exist.
The most absurd reason given by writers for their revolt is the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri. On my desk as I write this is a list of massacres in India, that is easily available on the Internet so I am not going to give you the number of people (mostly Muslim) killed, but here is a chronological shortlist of places. Turkman Gate, Marichjhapi, Moradabad, Mandai, Nellie, Delhi, Malliana, Hashimpura, Bhagalpur, Gawakadal, Bombay, Bijbehara, Sopore, Godhra, Naroda Patiya. These communal events occurred in ‘secular’ times. Most writers who have joined this revolt were old enough to know what was happening. Why did none of them think of returning their awards?
Let me answer my own question. They were not disturbed by these past massacres and riots because Narendra Modi was not prime minister. Simple. They did participate though in spreading the untruth that the violence in Gujarat in 2002 was the worst since 1947. In Gujarat itself, there have been worse riots and the massacres of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 were much, much worse. Nayantara Sahgal accepted her award from the Sahitya Akademi two years later and did not return it in 1987, when policemen in Uttar Pradesh gunned down more than seventy Muslims in a closed truck. Nor did she think of returning it two years later when more than a thousand Muslims were killed in Bhagalpur.
The truth is that most public intellectuals detest the idea of Modi becoming prime minister. They predicted the end of India in open letters in English newspapers at the first sign that he was going to win the 2014 general election. The truth also is that many are very disappointed that rivers of blood have not flowed in the past year despite serious attempts by ‘secular’ journalists to turn every stone thrown to a church window into a major communal incident. Every minor clash between Hindus and Muslims over the usual trivial reasons has also been magnified, but despite this India has remained remarkably peaceful in Modi’s first year as prime minister.
It is true that he has not taken firm action against ministers who have made dangerously inflammatory statements, and he has not tried to persuade his comrades in the RSS to end their silly and reckless reconversion programme. After Mohammad Akhlaq’s horrible murder, he took too long to say too little and if he is as sickened by it as this columnist is, let him now ensure that Sangeet Som is thrown out of the BJP. Every account of what happened in Bisara on that shameful night has him at centre stage.
Having listened to some of his hate speeches, I am astounded that this hatemonger is not already in jail.
Law enforcement is something that state governments are responsible for, so if writers were so horrified by the murder of M M Kalburgi, why have they not taken their protest to the Congress chief minister of Karnataka? Kalburgi was killed on August 30, so why did they wait till October to raise their voices?
Their revolt may have gained them more publicity than they had in their literary careers, but the irony is that they have ended up making the Prime Minister look like the victim of an unwarranted and irrational attack.
They have also ended up besmirching their own credibility, except in the eyes of foreign correspondents in Delhi and Indian writers who live in New York like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.
(Twitter: @ tavleen_singh)