Bengaluru: Prominent writers and thinkers across the country are protesting against growing right-wing intolerance and attempts to curb free speech in the only way they can – by returning their awards and calling upon the Sahitya Akademi to voice its concern and criticism of the horrors being perpetrated by violent groups, such as the recent killing of rationalist-writer Prof. M.M. Kalburgi. These voices may be our last hope for an India in which we are free to think and express our thoughts without being lynched by fanatic mobs or restrained by bans.
The flurry of writers and creative thinkers returning their Sahitya Akademi Awards has drawn sharp focus to what appears to be a significant threat to the freedom of speech and expression. This cultural chokehold extends beyond just the literary community – a number of artists and musicians have faced the brunt as well and are rising to the occasion.
Dr Chandrashekar Kambar, a member of the General Council, Sahitya Akademi, said a meeting has been called on October 23 to discuss the issue. "The Akademi has not produced the desired response to Dr M.M. Kalburgi's death, which has angered writers, for it is the foremost institution working on their behalf. The Akademi is a powerful body and functions with a fair degree of autonomy, despite being funded by the government." The upcoming meeting will, hopefully, reach the desired consensus, he said. “The Akademi is the main pressure point for writers who want to reach out to the government.”
The gesture has drawn its share of both supporters and naysayers, however, from within the literary community. Writer Vikram Sampath was among the first to protest against this move, after literary giant Ashok Vajpeyi and veterans like Nayantara Sehgal and Shashi Deshpande hopped on the bandwagon too. "Sadly, many of them are barking up the wrong tree," he wrote on Facebook. "If it's the government of India they have a problem with, they can return the Padma awards, which are given by the GoI. Sahitya Akademi is an autonomous body that struggles to surive and its awards have made careers and money in terms of royalties due to translations. What will we return?"
Even so, the 25-odd writers who have returned their awards have made themselves clear. "I think it's quite brave of writers to be protesting this way, especially if it generates a discussion on the freedom of expression and the larger milieu within which writers function, but also on the Akademi itself, which seems to have been called into question," said author and poet Anjum Hassan. "I’m not of the view that we should reject the Akademi outright, they have a certain role to play and a lot of resources as well. Still, the question we need to ask is how we can possibly bring in more autonomy, instead of the bureaucratic, complacent institution it has become."
Sculptor Balan Nambiar, who received a Sahitya Akademi award back in 1981, says the trend indicates that there are people who are sensitive to the larger issue, which is the increasing presence of right wing elements clamping down on opinions that differ from their own. “I was looking for my award, but I couldn't find it. If I had, I would have returned it too,” he said. “The creative community is getting more and more disturbed by the situation, especially Culture Minister Dr Mahesh Sharma, whose statements have grown increasingly atrocious.”
Mr Sharma has said, unequivocally, that there is only room for "tradition" which Mr Nambiar says will trickle down to every aspect of culture. "Sudheendra Kulkarni made a very strong point by attending the event covered in black ink," he remarked. "It's more than words can say, really."
Can you believe what they said!
Dissent is part of democracy and one cannot criticise it, but at the same time dissent needs to be understood in the right context. Now to those who are rejecting the Akademi awards, I want to say that the awards have not been bestowed by the government but by their own fraternity. So why reject it?
— Siddharth Nath Singh, BJP National Secretary
As per reports, only two writers returning the Sahitya Akademi Award have returned the money. Government should claim it with interest.
— Madhu Kishwar,activist
The real threat to the sovereignty of our nation is not due to extremists or terrorists, but people like Kulkarni. People like him are out to cut the neck of our nation ... When there are people like him present here, Pakistan does not need to send people like Kasab for terrorist activities.
— Editorial in Saamna, Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece