COVER FEATURE

India's Writers and Artists Speak Truth To Power

“…they won’t say: the times were dark
Rather: why were their poets silent?”

- Bertolt Brecht, In Dark Times  

Writers and artists in India are making a powerful statement against the Modi Government’s patronage of assaults on dissent and pluralism, by returning prestigious awards and resigning from posts in cultural institutions. These gestures of protest come in the wake of the horrific lynching to death of a Muslim man in Dadri on the allegation that he ate beef, and the murders of noted Kannada writer Prof MM Kalburgi, rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and communist Govind Pansare. They are protesting against the fact that India’s ruling Government and party are stoking hate to create an India where a person can be killed for what they eat, write, speak or believe. 

Left Initiatives in Midst of Communal Tensions in Ranchi

On 25 September 2015 in Ranchi, during a brief period of power cut at night between 9.30 pm to 10 pm, some meat (allegedly beef) was thrown into two temples in the Shivpuri area of Ranchi. An uproar followed once the power was restored at 10.30 pm, and at about 11 pm a massive mobilization of RSS groups took place to block the roads. 

Within no time, the mob set on fire an egg-selling shop and a small hut belonging to Muslims and demanding a ban on beef in Manitola. VHP and Bajrang dal goons begin to incite people with provocative speeches even as the state administration continued to watch in silence. Muslim colonies were marked by silence and terror.

Incidents of communal violence begin to take place in presence of police forces which had gathered to watch in silence. On 26 September, a popular news daily in Ranchi carried a provocative story that further accelerated the communal tension in Ranchi. On 26 September itself, goons belonging to RSS and VHP tried to further vitiate the atmosphere.

On the same day, on the initiative of CPI (ML) state secretary, Com. Janardan Prasad an urgent meeting of left forces including CPI, CPI (M), CPI (ML), MCC, Forward Block, besides others, was called. Following the decision taken during the meeting, immediately a team of left leaders met the district authorities and demanded arrest of the goons who had been trying to create communal tensions in the state.

On 27 September 2015, a massive peace march was carried out in Ranchi under a united Left banner. A fact finding team from the Left parties was also sent to Doranda. Another meeting of Left parties took place on 28 September and from 29 September to 1 October 2015, pamphlets appealing for peace were distributed. A team also met the Governor to hand over a memorandum.

On 2 October 2015, on Gandhi Jayanti, another massive peace march was organized by the left parties. The initiatives taken by the left played a crucial role in foiling the attempts of Sangh Parivar to engineer major communal violence in Jharkhand and influence the Bihar elections through such attempts at communal polarizations.

The writers and artists are protesting not only against the lynchings and murders by Hindu-majoritarian outfits emboldened by the Modi Government; they are also protesting against the explicit rationalization, even celebration and stoking of such acts by Ministers of the Modi Government and elected representatives of the ruling BJP, and the tacit, implicit support of the Prime Minister himself for such acts of violence and the accompanying hate-speech. They are also protesting against the fact that the ‘autonomous’ cultural Akademis are silent on the killing of writers and the attacks on pluralism led by the Culture Minister of the Modi Government. 

The Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma commended the Dadri lynch mob for not having raped the victim’s daughter) and described the lynching as an ‘accident’, and had earlier called for ‘cleansing’ of cultural and educational institutions of ‘foreign influence’ (read dissent and plurality). Responding to the writers’ protests, he taunted them, saying ‘Let them stop writing, then we will see.’ India’s Culture Minister, then, would like writers to either stop dissenting, or stop writing!

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley then went on to call the writers’ protests a “paper rebellion” manufactured by the Opposition party. He alleged that “the recipients of past patronage are now resorting to ‘politics by other means’.”

Undeterred by such mockery and taunts, the flood of protests has continued. In dark times, writers and artists and intellectuals are determined that history will not ask ‘Why were they silent?’ 

Here are some of the voices that have shown courage of conscience and spoken up. 

In September Hindi writer Uday Prakash returned his Akademi award in protest against Prof Kalburgi’s assassination, saying “the Akademi organises a tamasha of sorts, presents you an award and forgets about you. 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.”

In early October, Kannada writers Veeranna Madiwalar, T. Satish Javare Gowda, Sangamesh Menasinakai, Hanumanth Haligeri, Shridevi V. Aloor and Chidanand Sali returned their Kannada Sahitya Parishat awards in protest over the delay in the inquiry into rationalist M.M. Kalburgi’s killing. 

Soon after, Engish novelist Nayantara Sahgal returned her Akademi award, sayingThe Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.”

The next day, Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi returned his Akademi award, saying “This is in solidarity with writers and intellectuals being murdered in broad daylight…He is a very loquacious Prime Minister. Why doesn’t he tell the nation that the pluralism of this country will be defended at every cost?”

Then, Urdu writer Rahman Abbas returned his state Akademi award. Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, asking Words, strong and emotional words come to you easily. So why do we need to shout and scream for a few sentences about a man who was lynched for allegedly consuming beef?”

English novelist Shashi Deshpande resigned from the Sahitya Akademi General Council, saying that in such a situation “silence is an abetment.” Kerala writer Sara Joseph returned her state Akademi award, saying “There is a growing fear and lack of freedom under the present governmentWriters are being killed, people are being killed, ghazal singers are not being allowed to perform – this is not the free India I have lived in… The Sahitya Akademi has remained silent over all of this, when it should have been the first to speak out. I am returning my award in protest…”

K. Satchidanandan also resigned from the Executive Board and all other committees of the Sahitya Akademi, saying “I am sorry to find that you think this is a “political issue”; to writers like me, this is an issue of our basic freedom to live, think and write. Annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument, the very essence of democracy.”

Class 11 student, Muddu Thir Thahalli of Sahyadri High School returned her Karnataka Sahitya Akademi award that she received for a collection of essays in 2011. She said it was to protest the killing of M.M. Kalburgi, whom she had known for several years. She added, “Curtailment of freedom of expression is bad. Literature is a medium to express one’s opinions. There should be no curbs on free speech and writing.”

P.K. Parakkadavu resigned from the General Council of the Sahitya Akademi. Poet and writer Keki Daruwalla returned his Akademi award, and poet Adil Jussawalla wrote a letter to the Akademi President protesting the Akademi’s silence.

Writer Mridula Garg wrote on the Prime Minister belated breaking his silence, “If (Modi) is not ready to be held accountable for the …bashing of intellectuals in word and deed by his Ministers and MPs, then I prefer him silent.” Kannada writer Aravind Malagatti resigned from the Sahitya Akademi General Council, and Kannada writer Kumbar Veerabhadrappa (Kumvee) returned his Akademi award, saying that the killings of writers and rationalists and the Dadri lynching “are an attempt to destroy the diversity of this country and it signals the entry of fascism in to India.”
Gujarati writer and linguist G.N. Devy returned his Akademi award “as an expression of my solidarity with several eminent writers.” Devy later reported how, he was visited at his home by an intelligence officer who enquired, on behalf of the Home Ministry, who was instigating the return of the awards! This only underlines how, for the Modi Government, Big Brother snooping and intimidation is quite routine. Gujarat-based writer Anil Joshi also returned his Akademi award.     

Hindi writers Mangalesh Dabral and Rajesh Joshi returned their Akademi awards, saying in a joint statement, “We clearly see a threat to our democracy, secularism and freedom.” 

Four Punjabi writers – Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, Ajmer Singh Aulakh, Atamjit Singh, Waryam Sandhu – returned their Akademi awards in a single day. Days later, another Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri, saying, “In this land of Gautama Buddha and Guru Nanak Dev, the atrocities committed on the Sikhs in 1984 and on the Muslims recurrently because of communalism are an utter disgrace to our state and society.” Punjabi writer Megh Raj Mitter returned the Shiromani Lekhak, the Punjab government’s highest award for writers. Later four more writers from Punjab, Surjit Pattar, Baldev Singh Sadaknama, Jaswinder and Darshan Buttar added their voices in solidarity by announcing they were returning their awards. Noted Punjabi short story writer Mohan Bhandari also returned his award. 40 Punjabi writers and theatre artists staged a protest in Chandigarh against the suppression of freedom of speech, and to express solidarity with those who have returned state awards. The number of awards returned in Punjab is the highest in the country.

A federation of Kashmiri scholars, Adbee Markaz Kamraz, too expressed solidarity with the eminent writers for their decision to return Sahitya Akademi awards. G.N. Ranganath, D.N. Srinath and Prof Chaman Lal returned translators’ awards.

Young novelist Aman Sethi returned his Yuva Puraskar, saying “The Akademi cannot draw its legitimacy by celebrating writers while shying clear of solidarity when they are targeted…”

Fifteen of the Konkani award winners, along with Padma Shri writer and academic Maria Couto announced on behalf of the Goa Konkani Lekhak Sangh (GKLS) that they were planning a series of demonstrations during the International Film Festival of India in Goa to condemn the murder of rationalists and writers in the country.

E. V. Ramakrishnan resigned from the English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi, K. S. Ravikumar and C. R. Prasad resigned from the Malayalam Advisory Board of the Akademi.

Odiya poet Rajendra Kishore Panda invoked the constitution of the Sahitya Akademi in his letter to the Akademi President. 

Novelist Salman Rushdie expressed solidarity for India’s protesting writers, tweeting, “Alarming times for free expression in India.” Rushdie, who was threatened by an Islamic fatwa, is usually invoked by the Hindu right-wing in whataboutery over freedom of expression. This time though he was abused by online trolls, whom he called ‘Modi’s toadies.’ He retorted, “no Indian political party & oppose all attacks on free speech. Liberty is my only party.” 

Kashmiri writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal said he was returning his award, saying, “The minorities in the country are feeling unsafe and threatened. They feel their future is bleak.”

Former Governor and writer Gopalkrishna Gandhi said, “Writers returning Sahitya Akademi awards is a landmark moment… more should do so… They have spoken not just for the power of protest but also for the power of dissent… I don’t think there has been a time when three rationalists have been murdered, and the way they were, suggests a resemblance in the crimes. If writers and dissenters don’t protest, who will?”

Theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi award and later wrote a powerful piece titled ‘The Government is Getting Nervous About Writers Speaking Out in One Voice.” There, she wrote, “Every freedom is under every kind of attack today – the right to life, to speech, to express, to choose which god to pray to, what food to eat and clothes to wear, what partner to choose… The award is one instrument I had and I hope that by giving it up, along with many of my colleagues, it will help to jolt the government on the one hand, and on the other, reassure all those who believe that intolerance should not be tolerated, that it affects every one of us.”

Kannada critic Rahamat Tarikeri returned his Akademi award, protesting the recent increase in intolerance, included the Dadri lynching. New York-based poet and writer Meena Alexander expressed solidarity with Indian writers and wrote on the “Silenced Writer.”

Marathi Dalit writer Pradnya Pawar announced she was returning all her literary awards and the prize money to the Maharashtra state government to protest the “culture of intolerance” in the country. She added, “We are living in an era of undeclared emergency.”

Filmmaker Govind Nihlani, maker of the landmark ‘Tamas’ on the Partition, spoke out in support of the writers, saying that since Partition, “the fissures in society have grown and the manipulation of the vulnerable has increased.” Marathi writers Harishchandra Thorat, Sanjay Bhaskar Joshi and Ganesh Visputay returned their Maharashtra state government awards, saying there was an emergency-like situation in the country.

Bhai Baldeep Singh announced that he would return the Parman Patra conferred on him for his contributions to classical music and gurbani sangeet.

Assamese writers Homen Borgohain and Nirupama Borgohain returned their respective Akademi awards.  Bangla poet Mandakranta Sen returned her Young Writers’ Special Award from the Akademi.

Expressing concern over rising communal polarization and intolerance, 163 intellectuals including eminent poets Shankha Ghosh and Nabaneeta Dev Sen from West Bengal intellectuals on Wednesday wrote to President Pranab Mukherjee, saying that the Modi government should take a tough stand against fundamentalists. Thirteen writers and artists from Gujarat and ten writers and artists from Maharashtra added their names to the statement from Bengali intellectuals.

Sixteen Sahitya Akademi award winning Tamil writers – including Indira Parthasarathy, Ki. Rajanarayanan, Ponneelan, Prabanchan, Ashokamitran, Thoppil Mohamed Meeran, ‘Kavikko’ Abdul Rahman, Vairamuthu, Erode Tamilanban, Mu. Metha, Melanmai Ponnusamy, Puviarasu, Nanjil Nadan, Su. Venkatesan, D. Selvaraj and Poomani – wrote to the Akademi criticizing its failure to condemn the murder of Prof. Kalburgi.   

Noted constitutional expert Fali S Nariman said it was high time Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke against the “plague of intolerance spreading rapidly across the country” and those using “violent methods to stymie free speech and dissent” were brought to book. 

Hardev Chauhan, who has returned an NCERT (National Council for Education, Research and Training) award for children’s writing, said he would also return his Shiromani Bal Sahit Lekhak award.

Chikkappanahalli Shanmukha, Principal Correspondent with Kannada Prabha newspaper, announced that he would return the Madhyama Academy award in protest against the delay in apprehending the assailants of writer MM Kalburgi. Nand Bharadwaj, noted Rajasthani and Hindi writer and former director of Doordarshan announced that he will return his Akademi award.

Sahitya Akademi award winner and Telugu writer M. Bhoopal Reddy, announced he will return his Akademi award to express solidarity with protests against the “growing intolerance in the country,” and also his Ugadi Puraskaram award given by the Telangana Government to register his protest against the “indifference” of the state government to the growing number of farmer suicides. 

Telugu writer K. Katyayani announced that she was returning her Akademi award in protest against “diminishing constitutional protection” for freedom of choice. “Remaining a mute spectator when right of some are being crushed is not possible.”

Poet and novelist Vikram Seth said that if the Sahitya Akademi continues to be “mealy-mouthed” on the issue of freedom of speech raised by writers after the Akademi meeting on October 23rd, he may return his Akademi award.

Urdu writer Munawwar Rana returned his Akademi award. Hindi writer from Banaras Kashinath Singh returned his Akademi award in protest against “irresponsible” comments against the writers.

Danish Husain returned his Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, saying “By returning this award, I am reclaiming my voice in the public debate… We cannot watch our public discourse be hijacked by hateful bigotry.”

73 sociologists issued a statement on “the need to maintain Constitutional and academic freedoms.”

And we’re still counting! 

At a time when the Modi Government and BJP-RSS leaders are openly trying to turn India into a Hindu Nation with no room for plurality and dissent, it is heartening to see the courage of the writers and artists speaking truth to power. More strength to their pen and their voices!