Freedom to Dissent: Why Returning the Sahitya Akademi Awards Is Not A “Manufactured Revolt”

Let’s begin by getting down to the basics: the Sahitya Akademi is the most prestigious award in India to be awarded to writers. Returning the award is not structured on a whim, or a fancy, because the prestige associated to the award is beyond par. As an independent body, it is one of the few institutions that recognizes the excellent writing in a multitude of dialects. So when writers as eminent as Nayanatara Sehgal, Krishna Sobti and Ashok Vajpeyi return their awards, attention must be paid.

The returning of the award is, to quote the Rajasthani and Hindi writer and former Director of Doordarshan Nand Bhardwaj, “a protest against religious and creative intolerance which is rising in recent time.” In August, M.M. Kalburgi, the ex- Vice Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi and Sahitya Akademi awardee was shot dead in his home, prompting the first Akademi to be returned. What was a sign of protest over the inaction of the Akademi to ensure national recognition of Kalburgi’s death, which was clear case of intolerance, gradually gained momentum. Returning the Akademi lent, and is lending, the authors a voice beyond their writing. This act is aimed at protecting the purpose behind writing itself- expression that can be contradictory, but expression that needs to exist in a country that is (at least, constituitionally) a democracy. Safeguarding this right clearly extends to ensuring that people have the right to freedom in multifarious avenues, which includes their choice to eat beef. The wave of authors who have returned their award following the Dadri lynching are defending this very right, as well as making a strong statement about a regime that is steadfastly growing intolerant to any difference in ideologies.  As K Satchidanandan, the playwright and translator said in a letter to the Akademi, “annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument that is the very essence of democracy.”

The Akademi falls under the Ministry of Culture, but operates as an autonomous unit. As a body that honours the highest writing across India, it has the additional responsibility for acting as a mouthpiece for voicing dissent against this tide of intolerance. The body, however, remains clueless and, for the longest time, silent. This silence, which is one of the two extremes the government has followed following the Dadri incident, further incensed the ire of the authors. As Nayantara Sahgal said, on October 6, calling this the unmaking of India: “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.” The very next day, Sahitya Akademi President, Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari commented on the situation, saying that the award, which had a history of neutrality, was getting ‘unnecessarily politicized’. He went on to say returning the award was not the solution, inviting flak for his ‘insensitive comments’.

The other extreme, as showcased by Arun Jaitley is calling this act ‘a manufactured revolt’, ‘a paper rebellion’ and stating, that the act of returning the awards is among the ‘new strategy of anti–Modi, anti–BJP sections … to resort to “politics by other means”. ‘  What Jaitley clearly doesn’t understand is that in India, where writers and intellectuals are not given enough recognition (the overt indifference of the Akademi over Kalburgi’s assassination, for one thing),  returning the honours conferred upon them, is an act devoid of power-motives, but a desire to make a direct statement about the invasion of their right to write.

As the number of awardees returning the awards increased, the Akademi finally broke its silence, passing a resolution where the Akademi stressed the need to protect the freedom of expression of its writers, but sidestepped the demands for holding a condolence meet for Kalburgi in Delhi and steered clear mentioning the Dadri lynching. Simultaneously, it argued that the Sahitya Akademi is an organisation “for writers, an institution guided solely by writers”, and that the authors who returned their awards should reconsider their stance.

This further incensed the awardees, who are gaining support from veteran journalists like Mark Tully, and international organizations such as PEN. According to The Indian Express, Gujarati poet Anil Joshi said taking back the award was “out of question” because “the atmosphere of hate is still prevailing”. Malayalam novelist Sarah Joseph said the question of taking back the Sahitya Academy award “did not arise” because “religious intolerance still persists”.

For the authors, the move has become less about the institution, and more about the symbolism of the return- as more authors return the awards, the umbrella of issues they protest are increasing. Also, the nexus of the enlightened rebellion is increasing- it is not just about Akademi awardees returning awards- 80-year-old novelist Dalip Kaur Tiwana said she was returning her Padma Shri, which she won in 2004, to express solidarity with the cause of Indian authors.

With a current tally of 33, this rebellion is no longer an event that can be forgotten. Voices need to be heard, questions need to be raised when writers, like Prumal Murugan, give up writing, and scholars like Narendra Dabholkar are killed. This is an act of rebellion, yes, but at the same time, it is not just about riots or murders. This is about freedom, and how it is slowly slipping out of our hands.

By Stuti Pachisia
Edited by Manisha 

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