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2015 Rebellion by India’s literati against intolerance and growing assault on free speech

14 October 2015

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The Asian Age - October 14, 2015


The clash of pen, ink & thugs’ clubs

The protest of the creative folk is against the indifference of the present regime to the goings-on, perpetrated by the organised religious Right in the country, who appear to be a pretty well-organised set

When the noted Hindi writer Uday Prakash returned the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award late last month to protest the silence of the government and the Akademi following the broad daylight murder of eminent Kannada litterateur and intellectual M.M. Kalburgi, himself a winner of the award, and prior to that the similarly executed killing of rationalist-activists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar by Hindu Right fanatics, it appeared to be a one-off gesture — the hurt response of a sensitive literary figure.

Since then relinquishing the major Indian literary prize has become a sizzling trend, and this is shredding the prestige of the government in a manner that few protests by Opposition politicians or street demonstrations can. Important writers who are on the Akademi council have quit their positions.

Salman Rushdie has chipped in, announcing his support for the community of Indian writers and their cause. If the protest of the creative community gains an international dimension, India’s image as a democracy, and its place in the world for cultural or business interactions, could be badly dented.

Regrettably, the Modi government has not even begun to understand what’s at stake. Culture minister Mahesh Sharma’s far from enlightened comment on Monday was that if writers feel they cannot write in the present atmosphere, they should first stop writing — “then we will see!”

Is he making it a clash of wills as writers in languages from across the country are stepping forward to denounce the rising graph of intolerance and violence toward those who do not conform? Each of them is a stalwart figure, although Nayantara Sehgal, niece of Jawaharlal Nehru who had opposed the Emergency, immediately caught attention. The Akademi chairperson had sought to crudely mock her.

Protesters have also sought to highlight the case of a Muslim ironmonger at Dadri, near Delhi, who was killed by a lynch mob following the evidently pre-planned spread of the rumour that he had slaughtered a calf for its meat. The protest of the creative folk is clearly against the indifference of the present regime to the goings-on, perpetrated by the organised religious Right in the country, who appear to be a pretty well-organised set.

The spirit of protest was summed up succinctly by the contemporary theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao, who returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi award on Monday — becoming the first from the performing arts to join the writers. She noted that “in spite of reminders from society, the government had done little to stand up for the right of people to express their thoughts and ideas, and live the way they would choose to in a free country”. From the highest levels of government there needs to be empathy with and a recognition of the larger issues being flagged.

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BBC News 13 October 2015

How India’s writers are fighting intolerance

Image caption The murder of Malleshappa Kalburgi has set off an unusual movement with little precedent

More than 40 Indian writers have returned their literary awards or written letters of protests in an unprecedented challenge against what they call "rising intolerance and growing assault on free speech". Writer and columnist Nilanjana S Roy reports.

On the morning of 30 August, Malleshappa Kalburgi, a leading Indian scholar and well-known rationalist thinker, was talking on his mobile phone to a friend when the doorbell rang.

Dr Kalburgi, 77 was an open-minded, liberal thinker from the southern state of Karnataka whose uncompromising scholarship had often offended powerful Lingayat - an influential Hindu sect that dominates life and politics in the state - as well as Hindu right-wing groups.

When he opened the door, he was shot at close range; his wife and daughter took him to the local hospital, where he was declared dead.

A month-and-a-half later, the murder of this scholar has set off an unusual movement with little precedent. Writers from across the country are standing up in protest against the Sahitya Akademi, a literary body that represents 22 of India’s languages, and the state.

’Suppression and violence’

On 12 September, the respected Hindi writer Uday Prakash announced that he was returning his Sahitya Akademi award - one of the highest honours bestowed on Indian authors - along with its other components; a shawl, a plaque and cash prize.

He cited the rise in incidents of "suppression and violence" over the last year - book bans, the plight of writers like Perumal Murugan who was forced into silence after attacks by right-wing groups, the killings of rationalists such as Mr Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, as well as the heckling of respected authors such as the late UR Ananthamurthy.

In the same month, six young writers from Karnataka - Veeranna Madiwalar, T Satish Javare Gowda, Sangamesh Menasinakai, Hanumanth Haligeri, Sridevi V. Aloor and Chidananda Sali - said they would return the state awards given to them to protest the delay in arresting Dr Kalburgi’s murderers.

Image caption Perumal Murugan is one of the finest writers in the Tamil language

Then the venerable Karnataka author Chandrashekhar Patil returned his state awards, plaques, idols and cheques - "everything except the garland", he said.

His aim was to protest the murder of Dr Kalburgi, and also to draw attention to what he saw as the growing assault on free speech and the attacks on rationalists.

Many of these assaults and attacks have been perpetrated in the last year by fringe right-wing groups: it is easy for the government to disclaim any connection with them, but it is also glaringly obvious that it has done very little to discourage groups like the Shri Ram Sene, notorious for issuing threats - they offered to cut off the tongues of writers who insulted Hinduism, for instance.

Over the next few weeks, the writers’ protest went from a trickle to a river of discontent, led by veterans and members of India’s youth generation alike, representing languages from Kannada, Punjabi, Hindi and Kashmiri, to Oriya, English, Malayalam, Urdu and Gujarati.
’Protest and dissent’

In early October, two of India’s most highly respected writers, Nayantara Sahgal, 88, and Krishna Sobti, 90, returned their awards. Joining them were Shashi Deshpande, K Satchidanandan and PK Parakkadavu who resigned from the Akademi’s councils.

And on Tuesday Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana gave up her Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour in India. She said, referring to recent communal atrocities: "To kill those who stand for truth and justice put us to shame in the eyes of the world and God."

At present, over 40 writers from all across the country have returned awards, sent in their resignations or written letters of protest, and the number appears to be rising.

There are reasons why this particular protest is seen as unprecedented: it has drawn in writers (and now translators) from across a variety of political parties, and has cut across regional and language divides.

This is also, as former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) noted, perhaps the only time that Indian writers have sent back awards to the state in such high numbers - even Indira Gandhi’s notorious imposition of Emergency in 1975 did not draw such a strong reaction of "protest and dissent".
Image caption Dr Kalburgi was a leading scholar and a well-known rationalist thinker

The protest is about more than just the Sahitya Akademi’s failure to respond; Ms Sahgal explains this eloquently in a short letter titled the unmaking of India.

"… 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… The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology."

Her views are echoed by many who cited the rise in intolerance in India - several mentioned the recent lynching of a Muslim blacksmith by a mob in Dadri, a short distance from Delhi, as an example of the growth of communal violence unchecked by the state. Author Salman Rushdie has added his voice to the protest, saying that these were "alarming times for free expression in India".

’Stop writing’
Image copyright Outlook Magazine
Image caption Ms Sahgal has criticised the ruling government for the ’rising intolerance’

India’s Culture Minister, Mahesh Sharma, responded typically, asking what ideologies these writers represented, and saying, "If they are unable to write, let them stop writing."

But the poets may be more eloquent than any minister.

When Surjit Patar, one of Punjab’s most cherished poets, returned his Sahitya Akademi award yesterday, he was blunt: "The practice of killing writers and thinkers in our multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious country is disheartening."

And Hindi poet Rajesh Joshi may have had the last word, when he promised that this movement against fascism would grow.

"There is no breathing space and no freedom of expression for literary writers. It is like losing oxygen because we are writers who wish for free breathing space. I do not need an oxygen cylinder in the form of awards to live."

The state may not wish to hear what these writers have to say, but as the protest spreads with even theatre artistes like Maya Krishna Rao and filmmakers such as Govind Nihalani joining in, it may have to learn to listen.

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The New York Times

With Return of Prize, India’s Literary Stars Protest Rising Intolerance

Prominent writers in India are collectively protesting what they consider an increase in hostility and intolerance, which they argue has been allowed to fester under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by returning a prestigious literary award. Here is a breakdown on some of the leading authors and poets who are part of this so-called writers’ revolt.

Uday Prakash

A Hindi writer who became the first author to renounce his award from India’s National Academy of Letters, also known as Sahitya Akademi.

He returned the award he received in 2010 for “Mohandas.”

Mr. Prakash, 63, was protesting the killing of M.M. Kalburgi, a noted rationalist scholar who received death threats for his criticism of idol worship and superstition, and the silence by the academy concerning assaults on writers. Mr. Kalburgi was shot dead at his home in Karnataka on Aug. 30.

“The Akademi organizes a tamasha of sorts, presents you an award and forgets about you,” he told the Times of India in September. “When something like this happens, there is no word of consolation and support from them. Writers are a family but they don’t seem to care.”

Nayantara Sahgal

A writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave up her award to protest the “vicious assault” on India’s culture of diversity and debate.


Books by Nayantara Sahgal are arranged at a bookstore in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday. Credit Saurabh Das/Associated Press
Ms. Sahgal, 88, returned the award given to her in 1986 for a historical novel, “Rich Like Us.”

“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 marginalized, persecuted, or murdered,” she said in a statement when she returned the award in early October.

“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.”

Ashok Vajpeyi

A Hindi poet and essayist who was the chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s National Academy of Fine Art.

“It is high time that writers take a stand,” he said in October after returning the award given to him in 1994 for a poetry collection, “Kahin Nahin Wahin.”

Mr. Vajpeyi, born in 1941, wrote that he returned the award to protest the “terrible, restrictive ban-oriented environment” that now exists in India. He was also protesting the academy’s lack of a response to threats against writers.

“I returned the award to protest against the voiceless institution it has become,” he wrote.

Ghulam Nabi Khayal

A Kashmiri writer, poet and journalist who has written dozens of books, he said he joined the protest over rising intolerance and threats against minorities in India.

Mr. Khayal won the award in 1975 for the book “Gashik Minaar.”

“I can’t fight these communal forces physically so I have decided to lodge a silent protest by returning the award,” Mr. Khayal told The Wire. “I have never seen such an alarming communal atmosphere in the country in my entire life.”

Referring to attacks against Muslims, including the killing of a man who had been suspected of slaughtering a cow, he said, “This is not the country that our great leaders had envisioned.”

Gurbachan Singh Bhullar

A Punjabi short-story author, he said he was giving back the award to protest the “violent retrogressive forces dictating terms in the field of literature and culture.”

Mr. Bhullar, 78, received the award for a 2005 collection of short stories, “Agni-Kalas.”

“During 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,” he told PTI.

Krishna Sobti

A Hindi fiction writer and essayist born in Gujarat, Punjab, which is now part of Pakistan.

The recipient of numerous awards, Ms. Sobti’s novel “Mitro Marjani” depicts a free-spirited and determined woman living in a conservative Punjabi family.

Ms. Sobti, 90, won the award in 1980 for her novel “Zindaginama.” In 1996, she was awarded the highest honor of the academy, the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship.

She said she was giving the award back to protest the recent attacks.

[see also:]

Writer Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru’s niece, returns Sahitya Akademi award

Why I am Returning My Sahitya Akademi Award - Text of Letter by Nayantara Sahgal

Statement Issued by Nayantara Sahgal, October 14, 2015

Why we returned Sahitya Akademi awards by Ashok Vajpeyi

’Akademi has not stood up for beleaguered writers’: Poet Keki Daruwalla returns his award

Full text of the writer Sashi Deshpande’s statement on her resignation from Sahitya Akademi

Malayalam Writer Sarah Joseph Returns Sahitya Akademi Award

Poet Keki N Daruwalla on why he is returning Sahitya Akademi award

Satchidanandan quits Akademi posts, Sara Joseph to return award

Writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returns Padma Shri, RSS lashes out

More Authors Return Sahitya Academy Awards In Protest

Writers Returning Sahitya Akademi Awards is a Landmark Moment : Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Writers as dissenters: Badges of honour dulled by shame by Gopalkrishna Gandhi

The Dissent of Writers Tells Us the Truth of Today’s India by Amitava Kumar

Now that a prairie fire is lit by Jawed Naqvi

Writers protest: government should respect The Word by Seema Chishti

Indian writers return awards in protest against ’climate of intolerance’ by Jason Burke

India’s Writers Are Returning Literary Awards to Protest Diminishing Freedoms by Rishi Iyenger

Unprecedented protest by authors rocks India
By Karuna Madan

India: Text of Prof. Chaman Lal’s letter to Sahitya Akademi as he returns the national translation prize given to him in 2001

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