The Sahitya Akademi has broken its silence. One year and five months after Kannada litterateur U.R. Ananthamurthy — a Sahitya Akademi fellow and awardee — was given a ticket to go to Pakistan; nine months after Tamil novelist and professor, Perumal Murugan, announced that “Author Perumal Murugan is dead”; two months after its member and awardee, MM Kalburgi, was shot dead point blank; almost six weeks after Hindi litterateur Uday Prakash returned his award, saying that writers are solitary figures in an increasingly intolerant society that has no stomach for dissent, the Sahitya Akademi has found it in itself to condemn Kalburgi’s killing and the rising tide of violence and intolerance in the country.
The writers who returned their awards over these last few weeks cut across every linguistic, regional, religious, caste, ideological and writerly divide. But still, they were painted as leftists, Congress stooges, leftovers from the dustbin of history, publicity hounds, seekers of preferment. The labels flew thick and fast in the toxic spaces of debate on television and social media, where trolls spew their venom, secure in anonymity, and where a deeper engagement with ideas is a strict no-no.
What was most instructive about this episode was the lava of rage that the writers’ act of relinquishment inspired. A decision prompted by an individual’s assessment of the realities of the times he or she lives in — his or her constitutional right to freedom of conscience — was immediately deconstructed as a hostile act against the nation. As was darkly suggested in the memorandum presented to the Akademi by the previously unheard of Janmat (Joint Action Group of Nationalist Minded Artists and Thinkers), supposedly set up post haste to checkmate the writers’ march that had been organised to the Akademi’s offices in Delhi on Friday: “These writers are engaged in undemocratic actions.”
Thus, dissent itself became a dirty, sneaky, suspicious word that can even draw officials from the Union home ministry to one’s door, as the Vadodara-based linguist, Ganesh Devy, found out soon after he had returned his award. The questions flung at him and the others were many: Why now? Why did you then choose to keep quiet when there was an Emergency in the country, when Delhi was burning or when Asaduddin Owaisi and his brother were deliberately stoking communal hatred? Some wagged an accusatory finger and said, ah-ha, this is because these self-styled intellectuals, these pseudo-secularists, cannot stomach the BJP’s decisive victory in the general elections of 2014, and they live in dread of the party’s unassailable popularity and that of Narendra Modi. It is a “manufactured revolt” said one minister, while another taunted the offending writers to stop writing “and then we will see”.
Not one person in power made a serious attempt to respond to the observations that were being offered by those returning their honours. Punjabi playwright, Atamjit, to take just one instance, expressed how acutely conscious he was of the irony that the play for which he had received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2009, Tati Tavo Da Sach (The Truth of the Griddle), was actually about tolerance in a multicultural society.
Those who returned their awards understood the chilling impact a climate of fear, violence and impunity would have on the words they write today and the books they produce tomorrow. Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan, who felt compelled to resign from his posts in the Sahitya Akademi, wrote in his poem dedicated to Murugan, “The Earth is a damaged machine./ I am not someone who can repair it./ I am a king without a country,/ A god without a weapon,/ A life without a tongue.”
Such words may have been lost on those in the corridors of power but they reflect the enormity of a crisis caused by the fine sowing of dragon teeth over long years of communal, casteist violence that
is today yielding a malevolent harvest. A group of eminent Indian sociologists, in its statement supporting the writers, honed in on what precisely was disturbing about the present times: “In a country with some 4,693 communities and over 415 living languages, each community is bound to have its own customs, including dietary choices. Individuals may also follow practices different from the ones followed by the majority of their community. Any attempt to impose a uniform belief or practice, on either individuals or communities, is antithetical to the freedom enshrined in the Constitution. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure this freedom.”
Writers are part of that ecosystem, they survive on diversity and seek to understand it. The English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had described poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, wrote: “They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit”. It is this electric capacity that writers have of being able to measure the circumference of human nature that institutions like the Sahitya Akademi need to protect at all times and in all circumstances.
The writer is a senior journalist