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India’s litterateur return prestigious Sahitya awards

  • In Community
  • 00:00, 17 Nov
  • By Dr. Krunal Rawal

New Delhi: Dozens of Indian writers have returned top national awards in a protest against what they call a “climate of intolerance” in the emerging economic power. The campaign, described as an “unprecedented rebellion by the cream of India’s literary talent” follows a series of incidents of communal violence and attacks on intellectuals since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won power in a landslide election victory in India last year. In this protest noted Dalit litterateur from Karnataka Devanooru Mahadeva has also joined the movement.

He announced his decision to return Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi award and took on those indulging in violence in the name of religion.  "Even God cannot save those who perpetrate murder, looting, hatred in the name of religion," he said in an open letter.

He was honored with the Padma award in 2011 and got the Sahitya Akademi award for his novella 'Kusumabale' in 1990.  The reticent writer, based in Mysuru, hit out at those arguing there is no intolerance in India.

In the wake of an array of prominent writers and artists returning their awards to protest against rising intolerance in the country, President Pranab Mukherjee said that prestigious awards “are a public recognition, of talent, merit and hard work, by peers and leaders in the profession” and that “such awards should be cherished and valued by those who receive them.” The President added that “sensitive minds” who get “disturbed by some incidents in society” should express their “disagreement through debate and discussion” and that “emotions should not overrun reason”.

More than 40 novelists, essayists, playwrights and poets have now given back awards from the country’s most prestigious literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi.

Another prominent writer is the niece of Nehru, journalist and author Nayantara Sahgal, who claimed that “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault”.

The row took on an international dimension earlier this week when Salman Rushdie weighed in, telling a local television network that the failure of prime minister Narendra Modi and others to act was allowing a new “degree of thuggish violence” in India.

The two incidents that have most angered the writers are the lynching of a Muslim laborer last month, and the murder of a rationalist thinker in August. In the first, a mob in the village of Bisara on the outskirts of Delhi, the capital, believed their victim had eaten beef and beat him to death outside his home. Cows are sacred in Hinduism.

In the second incident, Malleshappa Kalburgi, an award-winning scholar whose frequent criticism of what he saw as superstition and false beliefs had angered Hindu extremists, was gunned down in the southern state of Karnataka.

“To kill those who stand for truth and justice puts us to shame in the eyes of the world and God,” an author wrote. The authors, who write in English as well as regional languages, have called on the Sahitya Akademi, which was established nearly 60 years ago by India’s independence leader and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, to publicly condemn the murder of Kalburgi.

The upsurges of sectarian tension in recent years have often coincided with elections.  Some analysts say rightwing groups allied to the BJP are pushing to see how far they can go under the Modi government.

Samir Saran, of the Observer Research Foundation, said that “louder and more rabid rightwing groups” in India felt emboldened by the mandate won by Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP, in last year’s poll and believed they now had more freedom of action.

Rushdie said: “What has crept into Indian life now is a degree of thuggish violence which is new. And it seems to be given permission by the silence of official bodies, the silence of the Sahitya Akademi, by the silence of the prime minister’s office.”

However, Saran said the greater scrutiny and reporting of such incidents following Modi’s victory obscured how such incidents had happened under previous governments led by the center-left Congress party too. “It is definitely getting greater prominence now,” he said.

On Wednesday Modi spoke about the lynching last month, as well as the cancellation of a Pakistani Muslim musician’s concert in the commercial capital of Mumbai following threats from a rightwing group. The prime minister called the incidents “unfortunate” but said his government was not to blame.

Senior BJP officials have dismissed the writers’ protests, accusing them of being politically motivated. “If they say they are unable to write, let them stop writing,” Mahesh Sharma, India’s minister for culture, told reporters. However, he also condemned the murders of Kalburgi and Mohammed Akhlaq, the laborer lynched by the mob last month.

The sectarian violence has had a significant impact on India’s image overseas and could undermine Modi’s drive to attract investors. In one case earlier this year, a critically acclaimed Indian novelist announced his “death” as a creative artist following threats and protests by rightwing Hindu and caste groups prompted by his book about a woman’s efforts to get pregnant with a stranger through a religious ritual.

There is a long history of clashes over culture and effective censorship by parties and leaders from across the political spectrum in India.

The sale of Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses remains proscribed in India and its author was unable to appear at the Jaipur literary festival in 2012 after Muslim organizations protested. Politicians have repeatedly sought to ban or restrict the sale or production of specific books. In 2010, MPs loyal to Sonia Gandhi threatened legal action to stop the sale of a “fictionalized biography” of the Congress party leader.

“It’s become a question of an individual’s right to speak, to think, to write, to eat, to dress, to debate,” said Maya Krishna Rao, a playwright and actor, who returned her award to the academy this week.

The writers began handing back their awards, sparking what may be the most serious protest against the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since it came to power in May 2014.

The BJP says the protest is a political stunt. It might seem to have a point. India’s literati tend to be secular and left-wing; its members tend to dislike the BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi, almost as much for his pro-business talk as for his party’s history of promoting hardline political Hinduism. But the abuses against religious tolerance that the protesters cite are real. The BJP has helped whip up feeling on the issue by saying the slaughter of cows should be illegal. Mr. Modi was slow to offer his sympathies to the man's family, further angering secularists. Had he been a Hindu, murdered by a Muslim, it is difficult to imagine that he would not have reacted more quickly.

This row is making Indians, and especially its religious minorities, nervous. The BJP rose to prominence in the 1990s after a spate of communal violence, which its supporters helped stir, that left thousands dead. As chief minister of Gujarat, Mr. Modi was linked to riots that claimed the lives of over a thousand people, most of them Muslims, in 2002. And the electoral politics from which such conflicts often stem is evident again