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What’s the Writers' Problem: Modi or Intolerance?

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Behind the moral howl

The two shots that shattered the morning calm in Dharwad on 30 August did much more than snuff out the life of a Kannada scholar. Within a month of MM Kalburgi’s murder, writers and scholars across India began a protest that has snowballed into a major controversy affecting the Sahitya Akademi—India’s national academy of letters—and now threatens to embroil the Union Government in a political storm.

If numbers were a gauge of truth, then by now the Narendra Modi Government would have been in big trouble. More than 30 writers have so far returned the Sahitya Akademi award along with other decorations such as the Padma Shri.

But a closer look at many of those who are vehemently protesting the squashing of freedom, rise of intolerance in the country and even a possible turn to “fascism” shows the hollowness of their protests. Several of these writers were pro- government figures in the UPA dispensation. Their explicit links to a different political coalition and their prior political position against the Modi Government makes their protest questionable. Notably, their protest is in contrast to that of many writers who live in towns and cities across India who have been anguished by Kalburgi’s death and their response is an emotional, human one to the killing of a fellow writer.

The first shot by the literary and cultural establishment in Delhi was fired by the author Nayantara Sahgal who returned her Akademi prize on 6 October—releasing her letter of protest to the press simultaneously—explicitly linked it to her politics. In her letter, she said she was returning her prize ‘In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty.’ She decried the fact that ‘In all these cases, justice drags its feet. The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.’

Almost at the same time long-time culture czar and a fixture in the Delhi literary establishment, Ashok Vajpeyi returned his prize. Like Sahgal, his protest, too, has a strong political overtone. Vajpeyi said, “We are on the brink of a tyranny of uniformity and parochialism. Violence, murder, intolerance, bans are creating a fearful ethos. Being in a minority is almost a crime.”

The reactions of the duo are curious and it will not be unfair to say, suited for a particular occasion. Sahgal’s response to the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 is in stark contrast to her vehement protest today. While it is true that she quit an official position at that time, her reaction was so muted that no one remembers it today. Similarly, in December 1984, Vajpeyi—who had the last word in cultural matters in Madhya Pradesh then— decided to go ahead with the World Poetry Festival in a city where thousands had been ravaged by one of the worst industrial accidents India had known.

But before someone rushes to say that a numbers argument is being used here in reverse, one needs to point out that this is more a matter of political convenience of these figures than anything else.

“Perhaps with some honourable exceptions, many of the slew of establishment writers who have returned their awards are doing so in a politically motivated fashion and perhaps as an opportunity for self-promotion. There is no persuasive evidence that the threat to freedom of expression has worsened since Modi became Prime Minister,” argues Vivek Dehejia, a professor of economics at Carleton University in Canada and a long-time observer of India who has also worked in the country. He added, “I am prepared to believe that there are some honourable exceptions, but indeed for these many writers to be returning awards en masse, I do think there is a political motivation in several cases, especially those with quite explicit links to Congress patronage in the past.”

If a cue were required for politicising the matter, this was more than enough. Less than a week after Sahgal and Vajpeyi’s resignations, the former governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi linked the murders of Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar with that of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh on allegation of keeping beef in his house. Gandhi said, “I applaud Nayantara Sahgal for starting the process; Shashi Deshpande by resigning, has given the protest a new dimension. This is a landmark moment that will be remembered in association with the murders of rationalists and the murder of [Mohammad] Akhlaq.”

Why are certain writers—once part of the cultural establishment in Delhi—trying to make a political point out of the horrible killing of a Kannada scholar? The now routine claim about the dangers of a “monoculture” actually reflects the danger from a far-more pernicious, intellectual, variety of this monoculture that threatens India.

There are two strands to this story.

One, there is a set of writers—mostly English speaking as exemplified by Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh—who live far away from the small towns and cities of India where most winners of the Akademi’s prizes live. The elite writers sitting in Delhi and elsewhere are the actual builders of the perception that India is well on its way to becoming an intolerant society where writers’ lives are in danger. The story of the deaths of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar—dastardly in every respect—has been repeated again and again to claim that the “Idea of India” is in danger. Many of these views are blatantly political. Ghosh, for example, said in 2013 that Modi would be a divisive figure as a Prime Minister, well-before he was even named as a prime ministerial candidate.

Two, the set of establishment intellectuals— exemplified by Sahgal and Vajpeyi—who received patronage under successive Congress governments now find themselves out of luck. The political thrust to what is essentially a human, emotional, protest at the death of a fellow-writer, is the creation of this class.

It is hard to reason with the former set of writers who have hardened political positions and can tolerate no government but one to their own liking. But the story of the second set raises bigger questions about institutional politics in Delhi, one that is vicious and brooks no change of wind.

“This kind of institutional intolerance began ever since we gained independence. The Congress leaders concentrated on power and left the cultural and educational institutions to the leftists who are actually no better than Stalinists,” professor MGS Narayanan, a former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), told Open while commenting on the institutional aspect of the current controversy.

“I don’t think it is right to blame the Bharatiya Janata Party Government for what is essentially a long-term problem,” Narayanan, perhaps the only non-Marxist historian to have served as chairman of ICHR, said while arguing about the institutional malaise that grips these institutions.

The reality, however, is different from what this charmed circle believes. Writers across the country are genuinely perturbed at Kalburgi’s murder but are careful not to extrapolate it to any wider political trend—let alone tyranny—in India.

Take, for example, Surjit Patar, perhaps the best-known poet of Punjab in the last quarter of the 20th century. In his comments to Open, he said, “I am upset at the silence of the Akademi. We are like a family and our angst is at the head of our family (the president of the Akademi, Professor Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari) who should guide us at this moment.” Patar, who won the Akademi’s prize in 1993, said he was returning the prize in anguish against Kalburgi’s death.

On being asked pointedly if he felt that the killings of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar were turning India into an intolerant place and if the country was staring at “fascism,” Patar said, “Every state has its own environment. Maybe the situation is different in Maharashtra and Mumbai. Things are not the same in Punjab.”

More damningly most authors Open spoke to refuted any claims about threats to life, and more importantly, threats to freedom of writing and expression. Perhaps the most important remarks in this context come from Shashi Deshpande, who returned her prize—which she won in 1990 for her novel That Long Silence. Speaking from Bengaluru she told Open that there was no threat, explicit, implicit or otherwise, to her family or to her person or her freedom to express herself. “None at all. My sons are worried for my safety but I am not. There is no threat at all.”

Her words are echoed by the poet Keki Daruwalla—a former additional director of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW). Daruwalla, who is retired and writes poetry told Open, “There is no threat to me…let me repeat there is no threat to me and no one is going to shoot any writers. What we are concerned about are those who have been killed.”

These words were repeated, in almost identical language and spirit, by all the other prizewinners who were questioned on their safety and freedom of expression.

So what are these protests all about? The unanimous conclusion of all writers—those returning awards and those who are against returning prizes—is that the Akademi has been exceptionally inept in handling the situation arising from Kalburgi’s death. It took the Akademi a month to react to his killing. However, it did hold a tribute meeting in Bengaluru led by its vice president Dr Chandrasekhar Kambar—a Kannada scholar who was Kalburgi’s classmate.

“The Akademi was petrified. Had the president held a condolence meeting, it would have been better. If Gopi Chand Narang (president of the Akademi 2003-07) or UR Ananthamurthy (elected president in 1993) had been at the helm, there would have been an uproar after such an event,” an upset Daruwalla lamented.

Daruwalla alleges that while the Akademi is autonomous its president was petrified. “He did not react in time,” he says.

Tiwari was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him. The vice president, Kambar, however, defended the institution’s performance and reputation. On being asked whether an appropriate response at the right time would have calmed writers who are now returning their prizes, he told Open, “I don’t know about that. But when Kalburgi died the Akademi did call for a meeting. I have met (Karnataka) chief minister on different occasions and have asked him to take action against Kalburgi’s killers.”

If all writers are united in protesting Kalburgi’s death, there are deep divisions on the steps that need to be taken against his killing. The divisions largely centre around two issues. One, should writers return their awards and two, who should be approached to fix the problem.

Increasingly, there are voices that are against returning the awards, one’s that view this as a counter-productive step. Mridula Garg, winner of the 2013 award for Hindi literature, told Open, “The Akademi is an autonomous institution and the awards are given by a jury of writers and are not even given by the governing council of the Akademi let alone the government. It will be an insult to these writers if the awards were to be returned. Furthermore, there is the danger of the Government taking over the Akademi if the protests persist. The government can say that it is taking this step to prevent the Akademi from disintegrating.”

Garg’s view is sharply countered by Deshpande who says “there is something skewed about the government-Akademi distinction”. She added, “It (Akademi) is autonomous but is dependent on the government for its financial means. And it has been observed in our country that any institution that depends on the government tends to become craven.”

There is a growing band of litterateurs (and even politicians) who have made the argument about how the government and the Akademi should be viewed distinctly. Jayant Narlikar—a pioneer of astrophysics in the country who won the prize in Marathi for his autobiography in 2014—has said “the awards carry a rare dignity, reflecting their national character, and so should remain above the fracas”.

Surprisingly, Shashi Tharoor, a Congress politician and a former minister of state in the Manmohan Singh government, has argued along similar lines. “Sahitya Akademi is an independent institution, and the concerns we have are political ones. Writers should not confuse these two. One should oppose the present climate…but one should not dishonour the award.”

Narlikar, and others, have argued that these killings are ultimately due to a deterioration in the law and order situation and the protests must be directed at the government responsible for maintaining it and not the Akademi. Not surprisingly, there are divisions on this point also. When asked whether she or her fellow writers have protested to the state government for Kalburgi’s killing, Deshpande said, “I have not spoken to the state government or about the government until these protests. I was more concerned about the Sahitya Akademi’s role. That I thought was the bigger problem.”

Garg agrees. “It is pure quibbling to say that law and order is a state subject. The Prime Minister should intervene and put an end to this lawlessness.”

The truth of the matter is that many of the writers who are protesting do not accept the Modi Government as a legitimately elected government. Their shrill arguments against Modi before he was anywhere close to becoming Prime Minister and their deep ideological convictions have warped their sense so badly that they clutch at any and every argument that comes their way. A section of Left intelligentsia suggested that the first-past-the-post system was inferior and therefore Modi can’t be considered the legitimate Prime Minister of the whole country. From the BJP getting only 31 per cent vote share in the 2014 general election—and hence being less-than- legitimate—to the fear-mongering about vital government programmes such as Aadhar (begun under a Congress government), the Digital India initiative and Smart Cities are all examples of “a draconian” government. It is another matter that in the name of democratic politics many of them are running down a democratically elected government. But then a good chunk of cultural elites are notoriously impervious to such reasoning.