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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Akademi protests: Arun Jaitley’s remarks an insult to intelligence of writers

I know many of the writers involved; most are longstanding critics of the Congress. Contrary to Jaitley’s claim, most have never been “recipients of past patronage”.

Written by Ramachandra Guha |
Updated: October 19, 2015 7:24:09 am
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When I saw on Twitter that the finance minister had written a blog attacking writers, I was puzzled. When the goods and services tax hangs unresolved, when drought stalks the land, when major questions of monetary policy are being debated, why would the man in charge of the Indian economy expend time and energy on us mere writers?

Then I read Arun Jaitley’s blog itself, and my puzzlement increased. From what I have seen or heard of him (we have never met), Jaitley seems a reasonable, even-tempered man. But this attack was ill-tempered, and at times even ad hominem. The FM claimed the speaking out of writers against the murder of fellow writers was a “manufactured revolt”, indeed “a case of an ideological intolerance towards the BJP”. He suggested that these writers were pawns in the hands of the left or the Congress, and that they were playing “politics by other means”.

These comments are an insult to the intelligence of these writers, and to their individuality. The returning of literary awards began in Karnataka, where some writers returned state Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the failure of the Congress government to prevent the assassination of distinguished scholar M.M. Kalburgi and to apprehend his killers. As one Kannada writer said: “In the changed political situation, where the state and Centre are mute spectators of all the fundamentalist forces, writers, rationalists and intellectuals are living in fear.”

Then, Uday Prakash and Nayantara Sahgal returned their central Sahitya Akademi awards. The respect these writers commanded, and the press coverage of their act, inspired other writers across India to return their state or central awards. But these gestures were spontaneous. They were not “manufactured”. There was no organised campaign. It was writers taking decisions as individuals.

In his post, Jaitley mentions the murders of Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar, but forgets to add the name of Govind Pansare. I trust the omission is accidental. In any case, from the fact that the protests began in Karnataka, it should be evident this is far from being, as Jaitley insinuates, a Congress conspiracy. The Congress might seek to make cynical use of these protests, but the writers themselves are individuals who belong to different political persuasions, or none at all. ]

I know many of the writers involved; most are longstanding critics of the Congress. Contrary to Jaitley’s claim, most have never been “recipients of past patronage”. They live in towns across India, in modest homes and with uncertain incomes, metaphorically as well as physically far removed from Lutyens’ Delhi. It is deeply unfair to accuse these writers of careerism. But some are perhaps guilty of inconsistency. When, in 1989, Rajiv Gandhi banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, that brave liberal Dharma Kumar wrote in The Indian Express that “in a secular state blasphemy should not in itself be a cognisable offence; the president of India is not the defender of any nor of all faiths”. Sadly, not many intellectuals were so forthright in condemning the ban.

More recently, when the Left Front government in West Bengal banned Taslima Nasreen’s books and exiled her from the state, too few liberals (and even fewer leftists) publicly opposed this. These failures opened up space for rightwing demagogues, who have since gone about intimidating writers and artists in many different parts of the country.

As I wrote in an article earlier this year (“A fifty-fifty democracy”, The Telegraph, January 24), threats to the freedom of expression in India are not new. They emanate from many sources — archaic colonial laws, the weakness of the judiciary, the corruption of the police, the pusillanimity of politicians, the complicity of publishers and media houses. What is new is the targeted killings of writers themselves. Previously, books were banned, art shows vandalised and films censored. Now writers are murdered merely for saying what they believe in.

Dabholkar was killed in Maharashtra with the state and Centre both run by the Congress; Kalburgi in Karnataka with the state run by the Congress and the Centre by the BJP; Pansare in Maharashtra with both state and Centre under the BJP. What was common was that the writers concerned had long been targeted by rightwing Hindu groups. This has made India a tragic mirror image of Bangladesh, where several brave, independent-minded writers have been murdered by Islamic fundamentalists.

It is these brutal murders that lie at the heart of the current protest. Notably, even those writers who have not returned their awards have been vocal about the rising intolerance we see around us — this intolerance expressed not merely against writers but against ordinary citizens as well.

In his polemic, Jaitley expectedly raised the question of past authoritarianisms. “How many” of these writers, he asked, “courted arrest, protested or raised their voice against the dictatorship of Mrs Indira Gandhi during the Emergency?”

There are four distinct (but perhaps interrelated) answers to these questions. First, some of these writers were born after the Emergency. Second, some of these writers bravely protested against the Emergency and suffered for it (Jaitley must know that Sahgal was a precocious critic of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism, writing often for JP’s weekly, Everyman’s, and that her husband was victimised by Indira Gandhi). Third, as someone who has counted Jagmohan and Maneka Gandhi as his Cabinet colleagues, Jaitley cannot any more claim credibility or sanctity for his own opposition to the Emergency. Fourth, as someone who experienced the Emergency first hand, surely Jaitley should recognise and empathise with those who speak now of the importance of the rule of law and of the freedom of expression?

Last week, I met with a group of young academics in Bangalore. They asked whether my family feared for me because of my public criticisms of the BJP and the Congress, and of successive prime ministers. I said they did, at times, but in fact English-language writers are much less at risk than those who write in Indian languages. It is no accident that Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi wrote in their mother tongues; nor an accident either that the vast majority of writers who have returned awards do not write in English. These Punjabi and Hindi poets, Malayalam and Kannada novelists, are perhaps invisible from Jaitley’s radar. But they are known to, and sometimes targeted by, malcontents and murderers who (too often alas) claim some kinship with the wider Sangh Parivar, of which he is also a part.

Guha, a Bangalore-based historian, is author, most recently, of ‘Gandhi Before India’

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the Monday, 19 October edition under the title ‘Writers matter’

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