Nayantara Sahgal | I am more interested in a ban on man slaughter
Earlier this week, writer Nayantara Sahgal announced that in protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the reign of terror being perpetrated by Hindutva ideologists, she was returning the Sahitya Akademi award that she had received in 1986 for her novel Rich Like Us. This, she wrote in her statement, was “in memory of the Indians who had been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty”. During an interview with Mint at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, Sahgal, who is the niece of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had stated that any other government would have been better than the one led by Modi. (Jaipur Literature Festival | Nayantara Sahgal: The Congress has to stop dynastic succession). Now, she believes, the very meaning of India is being destroyed by a government that will not tolerate dissent. Excerpts from an interview:
You received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1986. This, as journalist Rajdeep Sardesai pointed out in an article, was two years after the anti-Sikh riots. There have been many occasions since when we have seen the secular fabric of the country under threat. So why did you make the decision to return the award now and not anytime earlier?
My award in 1986 and the anti-Sikh riots are not connected in any way. If Rajdeep had checked with me, I would have told him that in 1984 I was a Vice-President of the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties), which spoke out in no uncertain terms about this massacre. We were the first organization to investigate the riots and bring out a detailed report, naming names of those responsible. This report was published. The PUCL then and now continues to raise its voice against horrors of this kind, and I believe the whole country (except the perpetrators) condemned it. So there was no threat to the secular fabric at that time. There have been serious communal horrors after that—the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 massacre in Gujarat—but our secular fabric was never in serious danger until now. Now it is, because the present RSS-ruled government has declared its intention of making India into a Hindu rashtra, ie., a Hindu Pakistan. This amounts to destroying the very meaning of India. This Hindutva ideology has made it clear it does not tolerate dissent or differences of opinion, and has taken to killing those who disagree with it.
Are the Hindutva elements stronger now, more intrusive in our lives and dangerous than during the previous BJP-led regime?
Yes, because the RSS is in charge. They are marching India backward into a medieval ideology. And they must be stopped.
Has their strategy become more focused, taking actions and creating mindsets that may be difficult to reverse?
Their strategy has not changed, but I would say in the past 15 months it has been able to assert itself because the Hindutva ideology has come to power. I would say that it can be only reversed if enough people rise up against it from every public platform. This is difficult to do since dissent has become very dangerous. The Hindutva tide is reversible if people unite against it.
You recently edited a book, ‘Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation’. From the Introduction that you wrote, it is clear that the book came about in response to the actions of the current government and its supporters. Why is it necessary to invoke Nehru at such a time?
Because of all that is happening. The hatred and violence against dissenters, apart from the assault on our plural culture, by which the Hindutva forces are destroying the very foundations of modern India.
One of the essayists in the book, the Congress’ Mani Shankar Aiyar, wrote of the need for “secular activism”. What needs to be done?
Exactly what Mani Shankar Aiyar says: People must rise up, speak from every public platform and demonstrate in the streets, if necessary, against the present situation.
Even as Aiyar writes of secular activism, soon after the Dadri incident when a Hindu mob killed a man on suspicion of eating beef, Digvijay Singh was quoted lending the Congress party’s support to a legislation banning cow slaughter. When we spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, you had said, “Nobody has destroyed the Congress, the Congress destroyed itself.” Is this destruction now complete? Is the Congress less secular?
Personally, I am more interested in a ban on man slaughter rather than cow slaughter. Individual Congressmen may hold different views. That is their right in a democratic party. But the Congress abides by its great tradition of secularism, and has held fast to it since the struggle for freedom under Mahatma Gandhi. The Congress will rise again along with other Opposition parties which will not submit to the iron curtain coming down on freedom of thought.
Is democracy itself, and institutions of democracy, being compromised?
The strength of institutions depends on the people who serve them. When the ruling government itself attacks these institutions, then the people of India must speak out as they are doing.
Why do you think the Hindutva ideology has had such a wide appeal in these past few years?
I would say in the past 15 months. Before that it could do no serious damage because it was not in power. Now it controls the government. It does not have a wide appeal. The majority of Hindus reject Hindutva. After all, Modi got only 30% of the votes.
Modi came to power largely on the strength of his promise of development. So far, in the past year, there’s less of this, and more of Vedic superstitions being promoted. Will this backfire on the government?
We have heard a lot of talk of development as if there has been no development in India till now. Development began and made huge strides immediately after Independence and we are benefitting from the progress we have made since then. What is happening now is talk of development by Modi while, at the same time, the RSS is creating a medieval state of mind. I would say this is really a dark age for India.