On Writers Returning Sahitya Akademi Awards

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Indian booker prize-winning author and anti-globalisation activist Arundhati Roy poses for photographers on September 8, 2009 ahead of the "International Literature Festival Berlin 2009". The festival takes place from September 9 to September 20, 2009. AFP PHOTO DDP / AXEL SCHMIDT GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

“Bol, ke lab azaad hai tere:

Bol, zabaan ab tak teri hai,

Bol, ye thoda waqt bahut hai,
Jism o zabaan ki maut se pehle;
Bol, ke sach zinda hai ab tak –
Bol, jo kuchh kehna hai keh-le!”

                           -Faiz Ahmed Faiz

A renowned Kannada scholar, historian, writer, rationalist, former Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University- M M Kalburgi was shot dead at his residence. A 24 year old Dalit writer- Huchungi Prasad was assaulted and threatened to have his fingers cut for being anti-Hindu in his writing. A Muslim man was lynched to death mercilessly by a Hindu mob in Dadri over a mere rumour. Two dailt children burned alive by upper caste men over a petty feud in Faridabad. These deaths, threats, assaults, are not just of a few individuals, but of every brick that makes up our democratic society and every thread of the fabric of the collective conscience of humanity.  One cannot deny that such a climate of fear, oppression and brutal violence is not conducive to the growth of any democracy, and in fact hampers and obstructs it from serving the interests of its citizens.In the light of the brutal incidents, around forty writers have come to return the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Awards bestowed on them for their literary achievements, to protest for the “climate of intolerance” that has come to envelope citizens and the unsafe environment for writers today.

While various sections of society have come up to support this act of resistance, others have condemned it as being just another gimmick. Many like the Akedemi Award recipient M S Sathyu, an acclaimed theatre personality oppose the act, saying,

“Akademis are autonomous bodies…Returning awards is an insult to people who have selected you for the awards.”

Many others like Dadasaheb Phalke award recipient writer Gulzar have come out in solidarity with the writers.

“We have never witnessed this kind of religious intolerance. What politics can a writer do? Writers are the keepers of the soul of society. They don’t have any other way to register their protest”Gulzar, in support of the writers

While this issue raises important questions about the State versus Individual nexus, it also brings to the fore the role of arts and artists in society. Artists are seen as working in isolation from society, and believed to be living on the fringes of society. They are believed to be mere entertainers. Seldom has their role in nation building and in keeping the conscience of society seen in as much reverence as politicians, social workers or activists. The protest by writers has brought to light the value of preserving these mirrors of our society, who serve as our looking-glasses, for it is through them that we see beyond what meets our eye. The protesting writers challenge the traditional view of the artist community being passive spectators to the happenings of society. They write not because they can’t do anything else, but because they realize the power of words to alter, change and direct the course of history. Acclaimed historian Romila Thhapar’s recently published book, ‘The Public Intellectual in India’ speaks of why it is important to have independent voices for the public:

“When writers are killed and threatened, such independent voices are lost, and one is left in a tirade of loud, sensuous, fabricated judgments. The writers, who are giving up their earned awards, not only ask for a better political climate, but also assert their role as a ‘keepers of the soul of society’. They are, in true sense being “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

An atmosphere that silences dissent is not healthy for the individual or the state. It is not a new phenomenon that people are being killed in the name of religion, or injustice is being done, or free speech is denied. History has been a witness to these incidences time and again. However, the protest of writers isn’t a new occurrence either. They are not suddenly awakened from a deep slumber. They have always been critical and abhorred each instance where a virtue or a value held precious was compromised upon. If they have not returned awards earlier, they have used the ink and the pen to condemn the ills. Whether it is the stories of Premchand, the novels of Bheeshma Sahini, the novellas of Amitav Ghosh, the essays of Manto, the political commentaries of Arundhati Roy, the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the poignant verses of Harivansh Rai Bacchan- all of these and myriad others have time and again spoken for the individual stuck in the mechanism of society. Literature is not just an artistic medium or a social construct with its roots in ideas, imagination and fictional situations but it is also a social institution, a long form of tradition which derives its prime motives from deep within the common culture. Its fiercest relevance appears whenever our core values are abused or forgotten.

The writers continue their protest in the hope of getting a response to their demands of a safer environment for all, of security for the writers who dare to tell the truth, of an inclusive governance  that stands up for all sections of society justly. As concerned young citizens of India we must further the view that ours is a country where many cultures coexist peacefully, that we are tolerant and accepting of the diversity and the only thing we condemn together is any kind of violence that seeks to bring disharmony in our heterogeneity and plurality.

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