Why should an artist protest against the state? What can be the methods and legitimate grounds, if any, for this protest? Three senior writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, saying that the state has failed to protect the freedom of speech and rights of minorities. The Akademi finds their protest “illogical” and urges them to remain apolitical as “there is no convention that the Akademi should take a stand on such issues”.
The Akademi overlooks that literature, in itself, is an act of protest. The written word, as it confronts the world and its politics and aspires to lend a voice to the unheard, constitutes an essential blasphemy against the existing order. It was perhaps Franz Kafka who believed that we must read only those books that wound and stab us, that a book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us. Being a dissident is not a choice for a writer, it’s her fate. She confronts traditions, beliefs and, in the finest moments of creativity, even the ghosts of her ancestor-writers from whom she borrowed her earliest idioms.
An undeterred expression is a precondition for her existence. Literary awards recognise her moral strength to express fearlessly what others, under the influence or fear of power, might not have. All three writers — Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash — who returned their awards had received them not because they sang paeans to the establishment, but because they dreamt of a universe “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.
Some apologists believe that since the awards were given by earlier governments, it’s ridiculous to return them now; that the Akademi is an autonomous body under the culture ministry and does not necessarily reflect the policies of the government of the day. They ignore that the Akademi is an agency of the state, and comes under the definition of the state under the Constitution. It represents not a government, but the Indian state. Constitutional freedoms apply not to a particular government, but the state.
Many writers have supported the trio. Their anger, justifiably, is directed as much against the Central government as it is against the Akademi. Sahgal was emphatic that “It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent. The Akademis were set up as guardians of the creative imagination.” What Jacques Derrida wrote about universities fits literary and artistic institutions too. They gain power and legitimacy not from any outside authority, but from their ability to question all phenomena, speak the truth and be centres of critical enquiry.
A writer is not necessarily an activist, certainly not a politician. She is most comfortable in the universe of words. She has only two chief weapons of protest against the state: To write, and to refuse or return any favour or award from the establishment. In 2010, veteran Hindi author Krishna Sobti and Bengali playwright Badal Sircar refused padma bhushans. Arundhati Roy declined the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the charter of this delicate bond between the establishment and a writer when he rejected the Nobel in 1964: “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own — that is, the written word.
All the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel prize winner.” The prime minister today might have little love for the first prime minister, but Jawaharlal Nehru, at a public meeting in Allahabad, once cast himself and Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala in a Chinese folktale about two sons of a king, one wise and the other dimwitted. When the time came for their ascension, Nehru narrated, the king told the dimwit son that all he could offer him was his kingdom.
The other son was to achieve greater things in life, and should be a poet. As Nehru finished, he rose and offered his garland to Nirala. This isn’t the only gesture that shows the respect artists once received from the establishment. The Akademi’s archives are full of letters Nehru wrote to various government functionaries to ensure the dignity of writers.
Some of the finest periods in Indian history are those when kings respected artists and guarded their freedoms. If Akbar is respected the most among all Mughal rulers, it’s largely because of his Navratnas. The present establishment takes pride in the wealth of Sanskrit literature India once produced, a significant part of which was composed during the rule of Chandragupta Vikramaditya. The decline in Indian politics post-Independence can well be viewed from its changing perspective towards artists.
A writer’s is a lone voice in the dark. It is mostly ignored, often considered irrelevant, in the tumult of politics and media. As we have come to evaluate any action on the yardstick of quick results, the worth of a few courageous words might not be easily comprehended. But it is this voice that eventually carves the space for tolerance and beauty, that makes the world a little more bearable. If this country cherishes its long tradition of free speech and diversity, this voice should be honoured.