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Politics of award wapsi: Intolerance for Modi started before LS elections
The unprecedented wave of returning of awards which begun with Uday Prakash, an Indian author who returned his Sahitya Akademi Award on September 4 as a protest against the murder of MM Kalburgi, a 77-year-old rationalist scholar and a Sahitya Akademi Award winner, by anonymous assassins at his residence in Karnataka in August, has sparked a literary revolt.
The Dadri incident where a 52-year-old Muslim man was killed by a mob for allegedly consuming beef in Uttar Pradesh in September has intensified the prevailing unrest. Protesting against the alleged growing intolerance within India, many authors, poets, playwrights and filmmakers have returned their awards. From Nayantara Sahgal (Rich Like Us) to veteran writer Krishna Sobti (Zindaginama), India’s literary society is protesting against alleged Government’s silence.
Nayantara Sahgal in her statement titled Unmaking of India states, “Rationalists who question superstition, anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly distortion of Hinduism known as Hindutva — whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle is being persecuted or murdered.”
Krishna Sobti in her comment raises the same issues, “The country cannot afford Dadri and Babri. This Government insults intellectuals, does not want to give us a right to speak against them.”
The incidents are definitely unfortunate and highly condemnable. But how far are the allegations true? Have these incidents really sparked communal unrest or attacked the right to freedom of speech and expression? Is India really growing intolerant?
Are the allegations rational?
The media claims that there has been a steep increase in violence against minorities, but the data comparing the first year of the Modi Government with last three years of UPA-II reveals a different picture. It is unethical to compare and contrast the number of deaths and incidents of communal violence as every
single person who dies or gets injured is precious and the loss their families, parents and friends suffer is irreparable. Unfortunately when we discuss growth or fall of intolerance or violence, it is always measured in number of incidents and deaths. There were 644 incidents of communal violence in 2014 (first year of Modi Government) while in 2013, when UPA was in power, the number was823, almost 21 per cent higher. Number of people killed was almost 40 per cent higher in 2013 than 2014. Some might argue that the BJP didn’t come to power at the beginning of 2014. True, but the BJP ruled for around 8 months in 2014.
However to avoid controversy let us drop the year 2014 from the analysis and compare 2013 and 2015. Even if we assume that the trend of communal violence observed in the first half of 2015 will persist in the second half, the number of incidents of communal violence, persons injured and persons killed in 2015 will be less than that of 2013. But the way a prominent national daily presented the figures on August 2, 2015 is interesting.
Had the media not sensationalised the news, the number of incidents would have been lesser than they are. The role of the media has always been crucial. No doubt the media has a positive and important role in unravelling the truth but it often “manufactures” alternative truths. The way “selected” news is presented before the public, it creates a certain image which influences the masses in the way the corporate media wants them to see. The media is not apolitical and hence often exploits its power of manipulation to construct the ideology of the people to meet its political motives.
Rationalist writers: Voiced or silenced in the past regimes?
There has been a lot of debate on how the voices of rationalist writers like MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, and Govind Pansare have been silenced. But why were the literary society silent when Taslima Nasrin was hushed? She was exiled but there was no protest. Is it just because she had questioned the fundamental beliefs of Islam? Even when Sanal Edamaruku was exiled after he had expressed his views against Christians in 2012, no one cared.
Taslima Nasrin has rightly questioned the Indian secularist, “I have been struggling alone for the right to live here and for my freedom of expression. Not only were they silent, famous writers like Sunil Ganguly and Shankha Ghosh appealed to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the then CM of West Bengal, to ban my book.”
She further questions the silence of secularists, especially the award returnee, as none of them raised the issue of the five fatwas which were issued against her after her book was published and recalls how the West Bengal Government forced her to leave the State.
Even as Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses incited huge controversy in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous references, the import of the book was banned in India. The writing fraternity at Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 stood divided as a group of authors read out from The Satanic Verses as a mark of protest. Amid the controversy and threats, K Satchidanandan, the renowned Malayalam author, said that though he was all for free speech he believed some kind of restraint was required to avert unnecessary controversy.
He added, “There are other ways of protest. In fact, it was coming up in every section in one form or other... there could have been some restraint, also from the organisers who came up with a statement dissociating themselves from the authors.”
India also witnessed the ban on Islam — A Concept of Political World Invasion (2003) by RV Bhasin, and Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (2009) by Jaswant Singh, and the list doesn’t end here. Almost 15 books are banned. Surprisingly all these were banned by the Congress Government, as they had either criticised orthodoxy in Islam or attempted to expose Gandhi and Nehru families.
Bibek Debroy, the renowned economist, in an interview on November 5, 2015 rightly says, “Intolerance has always existed and we will be stupid if we haven’t recognised it,” when asked to comment on the issue of intolerance.
Debroy recalls how Jagdish Bhagwati was “essentially” made to leave Delhi School of Economics and settle abroad as his life was made uncomfortable at DSE. He also mentions Dr BR Shenoy, who was completely ostracised for being the only one to oppose the second five-year plan. Not only Dr Shenoy’s name was erased from the history of Union policymaking but also he didn’t get a job in India. Hence he ended up in Ceylon. Debroy further questions why Alexander Campbell’s book Heart of India (1958), which says “frivolous” things about Jawaharlal Nehru, socialism in India, and the Planning Commission is still banned in India.
Perhaps “the award wapsi brigade” has no answer to his query. Hence we agree with Debroy, “It (question of growing intolerance) is purely anecdotal and is purely a subjective perception … In the intellectual circuit, there has always been that intolerance. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”
Time and art of returning awards
Krishna Sobti received her award in 1980, while Nayantara Sahgal in 1986. In 1984, India witnessed the Sikh pogrom in different parts of the country. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi justified the killings saying, “When a big tree falls, earth shakes.”
Following the riots, neither Sobti returned her award nor Sahgal refused to accept hers. The distraught Sikh women were still struggling in the court to fight the case of their children and husband burnt alive by mobs led by Congress leaders. Thousands of people were reported missing and their families were not even aware whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Most of the politicians of the ruling party were found guilty but because cases were not registered by police due to political reasons, lack of evidence, lethargic system and loopholes in the judicial system, the guilty escaped punishment. And the literary fraternity kept mum and let the Sikhs suffer in silence.
Interestingly another historic and retrospective decision was taken by the then Government in 1986. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act was passed by Parliament to allegedly protect the rights of Muslim women who have been divorced by, or have obtained divorce from, their husbands and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. The Act was passed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government to nullify the Supreme Court decision in the Shah Bano case. The Act passed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government, with its absolute majority, not only diluted the secular judgment of the Supreme Court but also denied the utterly destitute Muslim divorcees the right to alimony from their former husbands. The decision was taken by Rajiv Gandhi just to appease some fundamentalists. But our intellectuals didn’t raise their voice.
The way the literary fraternity is unhappy with the silence of the Prime Minister now, what stopped them to express their discontent then? If they would have united and articulated their disgust against the injustices then perhaps Muslim women would not have been deprived of their rights.
Of course every author has his/her freedom to choose when, what and how to express his/her views as Uday Prakash puts it, “But no writer can be directed when he should express his resistance.” But their “choice” to protest or not to protest weakens the intensity of their protest. Given their preferences, we start questioning their intentions, naturally.
Perhaps the authors were too young then to protest? Perhaps the time was different back then? But what about the recent Kupgaon’s incident where Sanju Rathore, a teenager, was shot dead on the evening of July 29, 2015 by armed men belonging to the “minority community”? The scuffle “between the members of the two communities” which started over one’s cattle
grazing in another’s field ended with their firing at a “religious site of the other community”. The incident at Kupgaon, which is in Uttar Pradesh as Dadri is, made no breaking news and hence was easily forgotten. No one even cared to console the family leave alone giving compensation. Is it an example of tolerance?
In another incident in Karnataka, a Hindu man was beaten up by some Muslim youths just because he gave lift to a Muslim woman. The video went viral on YouTube, but surprisingly no TV channel bothered to telecast it.
When a Muslim woman journalist of an Urdu journal had to leave her home and stop sending her children to school just because she had mistakenly published the cartoon of Prophet Mohammed while criticising the Dutch cartoonists, no one bothered to raise questions on the rising intolerance. Similarly two young girls were arrested in Mumbai just for making a post after the death of Bal Thackeray, when the Centre and the State both were being ruled by the Congress. In the same State where Dadri incident happened, a teenager was arrested just for a Facebook post against Azam Khan. Aren’t these encroachments of our rights to “freedom of speech”?
Having said this, we reinforce a wrong cannot justify another wrong.
Politicisation of awards
The highest civilian award of our country is Bharat Ratna. Interestingly out of the 26 Bharat Ratna awards given till 1991, three were awarded to the Gandhi family. Only 6 recipients had some sincere contribution to science, art, and social work, the others were just associated with the Congress. Ironically while social reformer and Dalit icon Ambedkar was conferred Bharat Ratna in 1990 after 43 years of Independence, Indira Gandhi received it in 1971. A close analysis would reveal that those who have received the awards, especially between 1947 and 1977, were mostly close allies of Gandhi family. Most awards are conferred by the panel of juries which is not apolitical and is often influenced by the ruling party.
The process of selection of the awardees has never been transparent in India. Had it been transparent, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Atal Bihari Vajpayi would have got Bharat Ratna while the Congress was in power, and Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi would have got it during the BJP Government. The irony is that people having particular ideology get awards during a particular regime. Similarly people believing in particular ideology or affiliation are awarded or rewarded with various posts in Government institutions. This is not party specific, it holds true for all. Of course, the Congress has to share more blame as it has been in power for almost 60 years, while others could not rule for even 10 years.
On analysing the structure of Sahitya Akademi, we realise that the supreme authority of the Akademi is in the General Council which consists of 99 members made up as follows: Apart from its president, vice-president and finance adviser, who are elected out of these members, 30 members are nominated by the Central Government and State Governments. Even among the rest, there are 24 representatives of languages recognised by Sahitya Akademi (they are also influenced by the Government), 20 representatives from universities of India (the selection of Vice Chancellor is also influenced by the respective Government), one representative each from Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Federation of Indian Publishers and Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (these five institutions have direct say of Government in the selection of their higher posts). It means almost three-fourths of the members in Sahitya Akademi are influenced by the respective Government.
Can we claim that these institutions are beyond politics? Is it merely coincidence that the conscience of all the academicians, artists, filmmakers and scientists woke up only when Nayantara Sahgal, the niece of Nehru and close relative of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, returned her award?
The way things have turned up, hasn’t having transparency in the selection process of conferring awards become an utter necessity?
No doubt some awards were given to deserving candidates, probably to maintain the dignity of the award. But if awards are so politicised, is it really surprising if any awardee return his/her award? Would it be wrong to assume that “award wapsi” is nothing but manufactured politics?
Film fraternity and award wapsi
Recently a number of filmmakers too returned their awards to express solidarity with the agitating FTII students and protest against the alleged growing intolerance in the country, giving a new fervour to the ongoing protest. Ironically, the day they returned their awards, on October 28, 2015, students at FTII had already called off their strike. Anyways it took them 139 days to decide to support the FTII students, isn’t it surprising? Interestingly when in the educational institutions of India, including Delhi University, people who are not even graduate get appointed as the chairman and governing body members, no social worker or filmmaker ever tries to oppose it. Why haven’t literary fraternity or artists ever demanded transparency in the appointment of governing body members of all educational institutions till now? Is it because earlier appointments suited them?
Returning his award, Anand Patwardhan says, “I am more afraid today than I was during Emergency because now there are roving gangs looking to do violence against anyone who speaks out. If you don’t believe in arm struggle, then what do you do? This is what we have. We want to be part of awakening happening around the country, like the scientists and artists and writers returning awards.”
We wonder why such “awakening” didn’t happen when numerous movies and plays such as Gokul Shanker (1963), Aandhi (1975), Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), Hawayein (2003), The Pink Mirror (2004), Amu (2005), No Fire Zone (2014) and Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy were banned by the Congress Government? Why the film fraternity were silent then?
The filmmakers claim to be apolitical. But can they who had started an online campaign against Modi even before the Parliamentary elections in 2014 be trusted as independent and impartial artists? There is nothing wrong in supporting a particular political party. All of us have our own ideologies, but why pretend to be apolitical?
Violence in any form is undesirable. But all the incidents are not associated with the Prime Minister. The Dadri incident which is believed to be the turning point happened in Uttar Pradesh and it’s the State’s responsibility to maintain law & order. Narendra Dabholkar was killed in 2013, when the Congress was in power in the State and at the Centre. Similarly, Sahitya Akademi Award winner MM Kalburgi was killed in Karnataka, where the Congress is in power. But Govind Pansare was killed in a State where the BJP is ruling.
If the present Prime Minister is responsible for all these incidents, then would it be wrong to blame the Congress and the ex-Prime Minister for the slaughter of the minorities in J&K? Even during their regimes, hundreds of Muslims were killed in riots. Hundreds of tribal and minorities were killed in Kokrajhar (Assam-2013) when the Congress was ruling both Assam and the Centre. Will the Congress hold then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi responsible for the same? Can any Government claim that while they were in power, Dalit, tribal and minorities were not attacked?
Award wapsi: Protest or Mockery?
Being educated, civilised and progressive, we have every right to express our discontent and protest in our own way provided we are not breaching law. The literary and the film fraternity are returning their awards to voice their protest against the alleged growing intolerance and the Government’s silence. But in the process, aren’t they insulting the honourable juries who had bestowed the honour on them? Or is it the entire episode of receiving awards is just a mockery?
After all they are not returning other benefits taken from the Government. Are they resigning from their posts/jobs? They are returning something which is insignificant in terms of financial incentive. Once they have received the awards it will be on records forever. Returning them would not erase their names. So what’s the point in returning them? In fact, the forgotten names are resurfacing!
The cause the literary fraternity has stood for is right but the process they have adopted compel us to question their motives. Instead of returning their awards they should, if they think intolerance is growing, initiate discussion, study the statistics and demonstrate it through their writings. As Wendy Doniger, a Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, says in her interview, “The main thing that writers can do is go on writing in the spirit of diverse opinion and imaginative artistic expression that has been the glory of India for centuries….That is the way to protect the liberal space.”
(Anish Gupta and Aaleya Giri teach Economics and English respectively at Delhi University. Views expressed here are personal.)
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