Writers Rise in Protest against Growing Intolerance And Attack on Freedom of Expression
Decrying the rising intolerance and attack on the freedom of expression in the country as manifested by incidents such as the murder MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and the lynching of Mohd Akhlaq, many eminent writers, as a mark of protest, have returned their Sahitya Akademi Awards or have resigned from the posts they held in the Sahitya Akademi. They have written to the president of the Akademi on why they have returned the award or resigned from various positions. Below we publish the excerpts from their letters.
THIS is not the moment to be silent and find a safe corner to hide in. Otherwise, these dangers will continue to rise... We are witnessing an increase in intolerance for any kind of dissent in the society. Offensive and threatening calls and messages start to pour in for the slightest of issues. There is threat and physical violence too. It has been said that those who disagree should leave the country and go to Pakistan. Any individual who does not agree with a handful of fanatics is termed "anti-national". In such an environment, Kalburgi was killed and I decided to return my award. I have never seen such hostility before.
Our society is not a homogenous one. There are, not one, but many cultures, religions, castes, communities and identities... But some people are bent on wiping out their own legacy. They are like terrorists.
Sixteen Tamil writers who got Sahitya Akademi Awards – Indira Parthasarathy, K Rajanarayanan, Ponneelan, Pirabanchan, Asokamitran, Thopil Mohamed Meeran, Kaviko Abdul Rahman, Vairamuthu, Erode Tamilanban, Mu. Metha, Melanmai Ponnusami, Puviyarasu, Nanjil Naadan, Su. Venkatesan, D Selvaraj and Poomani, have written the following letter to the president of the Akademi.
WE, express our fear and worry on the attacks and threats against the fundamental values of our country which is a democratic and socialist republic and the diverse character of India’s culture.
The murder of Kannada writer and Sahitya Akademi Award holder MM Kalburgi was a gravely shocking incident. The situation has come to such pass that there was no security for the life of a writer not to mention the threat to freedom of expression. The Akademi has not condemned the act in no uncertain terms. On the contrary it has just issued a general statement. It is not adequate and we demand that the Akademi take a stronger stand.
India is an amalgamation of diverse cultures and historically there are different form of worships and food habits. It is highly condemnable that writers and intellectuals expressing dissenting views are being silenced with violence.
The trend should be stopped immediately. Writers and people of all sections should join hands to protect democracy, freedom of expression and secularism in the country.
IN a recent lecture, India’s vice-president, Dr Hamid Ansari, found it necessary to remind us that India’s Constitution promises all Indians 'liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship'. The right to dissent is an integral part of this Constitutional guarantee. He found it necessary to do so because India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault. Rationalists who question superstition, anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism known as Hindutva – whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle – are being marginalised, persecuted, or murdered. A distinguished Kannada writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner, MM Kalburgi, and two Maharashtrians, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, both anti-superstition activists, have all been killed by gun-toting motor-cyclists. Other dissenters have been warned they are next in line. Most recently, a village blacksmith, Mohammed Akhlaq, was dragged out of his home in Bisara village outside Delhi, and brutally lynched, on the supposed suspicion that beef was cooked in his home.
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. It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent. The Akademis were set up as guardians of the creative imagination, and promoters of its finest products in art and literature, music and theatre. In protest against Kalburgi’s murder, a Hindi writer, Uday Prakash, has returned his Sahitya Akademi Award. Six Kannada writers have returned their Awards to the Kannada Sahitya Parishat.
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, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award.
IT is with intense pain that I am writing this letter to you. As you are aware, I have been closely associated with the Sahitya Akademi for almost four decades – as a member of the Malayalam Advisory Board, as the editor of its journal, Indian Literature, as its chief executive for a decade and, later, as a member of its General Council and Executive Board, and the convener of the English Advisory Board.
I was always proud of this unique institution, conceived by great liberal minds like Jawaharlal Nehru, and nurtured by several dreaming minds in the country.
I had hoped that the Akademi would continue to uphold its liberal, open and democratic traditions. It was with this hope that I sent you a letter with the draft of a resolution expressing anguished concern at the dastardly murder of MM Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi Awardee and erstwhile member; a rare scholar who edited several volumes of vachana literature in Kannada, and an independent mind that refused to tolerate bigotry of any kind. But to my great disillusionment, my letter as a member of the Executive Board did not even receive a reply from the Akademi, leave alone an active response.
I am sorry that the Akademi has failed in its duty to stand with writers and uphold the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, a freedom which has been violated every day in recent times. Holding a ritual condolence meeting in a regional office, as the Akademi seems to have done, is hardly an adequate response to these recent attacks on the freedom of expression, followed by a series of murders of independent thinkers in different parts of the country. I am sorry to find that you think this is a “political issue”; to writers like me, this is an issue of our basic freedom to live, think and write. Annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument, the very essence of democracy.
I thank the Akademi for all that it has given me for the many years of my dedicated service. But as a concerned citizen and writer, my conscience does not permit me to continue on its General Council and its Executive Board. I hereby resign from all my positions in the Sahitya Akademi, including the convenorship of the English Advisory Board, and the membership of its several committees such as the Finance Committee, the Grants Committee and the Building Committee.
WE are now four writers, from three pan-Indian languages ie, Hindi, Urdu and English, belonging to four generations, who have returned our Sahitya Akademi Award in protest. We are not alone: there are many in most languages and other artistic and intellectual vocations and locations who are feeling equally agitated, angry and anxious.
All spaces of liberal values and thought, all locations of dissent and dialogue, all attempts at sanity and mutual trust are under assault almost on a daily basis. All kinds and forms of violence, whether religious and communal, consumerist and globalising, caste-based and cultural, social and domestic, are on the upswing. An ethos of bans, suspicions, hurt feelings is being promoted by many forces that are active and have been emboldened by powers that be, without the slightest fear of law. Democratic rights of expression, faith, privacy etc are being looked down upon and curbed or disrupted without provocation or fault.
A new political hypocrisy has emerged centre-stage: make all the constitutionally correct statements on freedom, liberty, secular fabric, tolerance but keep quiet or dilute or take no action against those who blatantly violate both spirit of the Constitution and the rule of law. A citizen almost does not have a fundamental right to life, freedom etc. You can live or be free if they allow you to be so.
A lot of this is being done in the name of Indian tradition and culture. There cannot be a bigger insult or greater damage to the Indian tradition than this. One of the most ancient in the world, this tradition belongs to a civilisational enterprise called India. It is perhaps the largest in the world, unique in its plurality of language, religion, custom, cuisine, costume, craft etc. Nothing in India has remained singular for long, everything sooner or later turns plural or becomes part of a large plural. Not god, nor language, not system of philosophy and reflection, nor faith and worship, not to speak of belief and value. There have always been forces amongst us who do not like this deeply enriching plurality and who would see it replaced by some kind of uniformity which they believe would be more manageable. Our tradition has not only been one of plurality but also of dialogue and accommodation, interrogation and dissent, of public debate, innovation and scrutiny.
Some of us are only adhering to our own noble tradition of 'speaking truth to power'. So we decided to return the Sahitya Akademi award by way of protest, also to bring to the notice of the public that assaults to our freedom are increasing and we the writers, artists, intellectuals are extremely worried and concerned.
WHEN I heard in November 2012 from the Sahitya Akademi that I had been nominated to the General Council of the Akademi in the individual category of writers, I felt honoured. I have always respected the Sahitya Akademi’s role as the single institution in India that brings together all the Indian languages under one umbrella, at the same time giving each language its rightful place and dignity.
Today, I am deeply distressed by the silence of the Akademi on the murder of Professor MM Kalburgi. Professor Kalburgi was a noted scholar, and a good and honest human being; he was also a Sahitya Akademi Awardee and a member of its General Council until recently.
If the Akademi, the premier literary organisation in the country, cannot stand up against such an act of violence against a writer, if the Akademi remains silent about this attack on one of its own, what hope do we have of fighting the growing intolerance in our country? A few tame condolence meetings here and there for a member of our community cannot serve the purpose.
Sadly, it has become increasingly important to reaffirm that difference of opinion cannot be ended with a bullet; that discussion and debate are the only way a civilised society resolves issues. It has also become clear that writers, who are supposed to be the conscience-keepers of society, are no longer considered intellectual leaders; their voices no longer matter. Perhaps this is the right time for writers to reclaim their voices. But we need a community of voices, and this is where the Akademi could serve its purpose and play an important role. It could initiate and provide space for discussion and debate in public life. It could stand up for the rights of writers to speak and write without fear; this is a truth all political parties in a democracy are supposed to believe in. Silence is a form of abetment, and the Sahitya Akademi, which should speak for the large community of Indian writers, must stand up and protest the murder of Professor Kalburgi and all such acts of violent intolerance.
In view of the Akademi’s failure to stand up for its community of writers and scholars, I am, out of a sense of strong disappointment, offering my resignation from the General Council of the Sahitya Akademi. I do this with regret, and with the hope that the Akademi will go beyond organising programmes, and giving prizes, to being involved with crucial issues that affect Indian writers’ freedom to speak and write.
G N DEVY:
IT is with utmost regret that I convey to you that I wish to return the 1993 Sahitya Akademi Award given in the category of books in English to my work, After Amnesia (1992). I do this as an expression of my solidarity with several eminent writers who have recently returned their awards to highlight their concern and anxiety over the shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion.
These eminent writers have already stated their concerns in statements sent to you as well as through media interviews and discussions. I need not, therefore, state again what has already been conveyed to you. However, I would like to add that I visited Dharwad in the first week of August, just three weeks before the shocking attack on the late Prof MM Kalburgi which resulted in his death. I was there to deliver the First VK Gokak Memorial Lecture. You may recall that the high office that you hold at present, on behalf of the literary community of our country, was at one time held, among many other mighty predecessors, by VK Gokak. He was the principal of Willingdon College during the years of the Independence movement. On one occasion, when the police came to arrest students, he stood at the entrance of the college, blocked their entry and asked them to first arrest him before they touched the students. It was this kind of concern for freedom that he brought to the institutions he headed. I hope you do not think that he was not sufficiently pragmatic.
When I gave the Gokak lecture, Prof. Kalburgi was still alive. Alas, he had to fall to the forces of intolerance. A week after his killing, I participated in a seminar organised by the Sahitya Akademi. This was in Nagpur. I was to preside over the inaugural session. I was quite dismayed to see that the seminar began without a word of reference to the recent attack on a scholar honoured by the Akademi. Therefore, when my turn to speak came at the end of the session, I asked the audience if they would object to my observing a two-minute silence to mourn the dastardly killing. Please note that all of them stood up in silence with me. If our writers and literary scholars had the courage to stand up in Nagpur, I fail to understand why there should be such a deafening silence at Ravindra Bhavan about what is happening to free expression in our country.
I have personally known both of you as my seniors, and have admired your writings and imaginative powers. May I make bold to say that your moment of reckoning has come? I hope you will give this country the assurance that it is the writers and thinkers who have come forward to rescue sense, good-will, values, tolerance and mutual respect in all past ages. Had this not been so, why would we be remembering the great saint poets who made our modern Indian languages what they are today? The great idea of India is based on a profound tolerance for diversity and difference. They far surpass everything else in importance. That we have come to a stage when the honourable Rastrapatiji had to remind the nation that these must be seen as non-negotiable foundations of India, should be enough of a reason for the Sahitya Akademi to act.
DURING the recent past, the attempts at disrupting the social fabric of the country, targeting particularly the area of literature and culture, under an orchestrated plan of action, has been perturbing me. Serious challenges posed by regressive forces in the domains of literature and culture have led me to raise my voice.
IN 2012, I was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, an award given by the Akademi for writers under the age of 35.
We, as citizens, have as much a claim on the Sahitya Akademi as any government of the day. Accepting the award, I thought at the time, would be a way of asserting our claim on this space of collective articulation, and acknowledging the efforts of the Akademi’s members in carving out an autonomous space for arts and letters in India.
Today, I would like to return my award and have sent an email to the institution, informing them of my decision. While I believe the arguments I have listed above are still valid, recent events suggest that the Akademi is neither interested in supporting writers in their fight to push the boundaries of expression and thought, nor in asserting its autonomy at a time when the spirit of critical inquiry is clearly under threat.
I am shocked by the Akademi’s refusal to take a firm stance on the assassination of scholar, rationalist and Sahitya Akademi Award winner MM Kalburgi (a condolence meeting is not the same as a statement of solidarity) and its silence in the face of attacks on writers like UR Ananthamurthy, and Perumal Murugan in the past.
Institutions like the Sahitya Akademi need writers, authors, and journalists much more than we need them. We are fortunate that our primary loyalties reside with our readers. It is to our readers that we are answerable, not to institutions of State.
For the reasons above, I am returning my award.
I AM returning my award in dissent to a range of incidents like the silencing of the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, the killing of Kannada writer and Sahitya Akademi awardee MM Kalburgi. I am returning my award in protest against the growing intolerance in the country.