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On 6 October, Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi award. She created a storm.

Within days, in solidarity with her views on the threat to Indian diversity, more and more authors decided to return their Sahitya Akademi awards. “What else do writers have to throw at them but their awards?" declared Hindi author Vishwanath Tripathy at Rabindra Bhawan in New Delhi, where the Sahitya Akademi is housed, on 23 October, when authors, artistes and civil rights activists led a silent protest march against the threat to freedom of expression in the country, seeking that the national academy of letters take a strong stand in support of the community it represents.

At a protest conference held a few days earlier in New Delhi by six organisations—the All-India Progressive Writers Association, Janwadi Lekhak Sangh, Jansanskriti Manch, Dalit Writers Association, Press Club of India and the Indian Women’s Press Corps—where more than 20 writers spoke up, the rheoric was of an “andolan" and “fighting till the end".

A month later, the hail is still pelting down hard. From artistes, scientists, academics, even Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan, more and more people are coming forward to emphasize the need for a spirit of tolerance and every citizen’s right to, as Rajan put it, “question, challenge… and behave differently".

Even last week, author and activist Arundhati Roy, who had in 2006 refused the Sahitya Akademi award, stating that she couldn’t accept an award from an institution linked to a government whose policies she opposed, was “very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National award I can return because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, film-makers and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now".

What we are witnessing is a war on silence.

It’s vital at this point to revisit Sahgal’s statement when she decided to speak up. Writing of the “vicious assault" to India’s culture of diversity and debate, of the murders of Kannada writer M.M. Kalburgi, the rationalists Narendra Dhabolkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra, and of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri by a mob on suspicion of having eaten beef, she states: “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology. It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent. The Akademis were set up as guardians of the creative imagination..."

If Sahgal, and others, are perturbed by what they perceive as the tacit encouragement of right-wing rabble-rousers by those in positions of influence, by taking a public stand, they are emboldening others to articulate their own views.

This is a whirlwind that has taken months to gather force, and to gain consciouness. In the beginning of this year, hounded by Hindu extremists for writing that they considered objectionable, Tamil author Perumal Murugan declared his death as a writer. It was a statement that shook the writers’ community to the core. At the Hindu Lit for Life festival held in Chennai in January, participants adopted an unanimous resolution condemning the attempt to silence him.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival held soon after, Sahgal said in an interview to Mint: “The first thing I did when I got to Chennai, I talked about the fact that we need to have a union or collective of writers, publishers and concerned citizens who will speak in one voice when something like this happens. Individual protests don’t get very far, and it is high time we spoke in one voice because these kinds of things have been happening, but they are happening much more now."

Similar thoughts were expressed by writers at the Idea of India conclave organized in New Delhi by a core collective of Shabnam Hashmi, Harsh Mander, Seema Mustafa and Prabir Purkayastha last year. The need for a collective of writers was confirmed by the killing of rationalists and the intimidation of Murugan, says author Githa Hariharan, one of the founding members of the Indian Writers’ Forum that was set up this February. The forum established a Web platform where “everyone, the individuals and groups already working on the ground, and others, could discuss, debate and understand how we should express our protest against what is being done to our culture and heritage".

Everyone, she adds, is welcome to join them, “except those who kill or threaten people they disagree with, or those who tell people what to eat, how to dress, how women should behave, what to think and feel."

The Idea of India conclave itself was an attempt to highlight India’s diversity and to, as Hashmi says, “break the silence". Mander says that they were convinced that the majority of people in the country felt the same sense of disquiet, even despair post the 2014 general elections, but they were not conscious of being in the majority. The attempt was to bring this fragmented lot together, to create a shared forum that would bring diverse voices and opinions together.

The raison d’etre for Idea of India also happens to be the basis of a recent book of essays published by Aleph Book Company, The Public Intellectual In India, which historian Romila Thapar—a member, along with Sahgal, of the India Writers’ Forum—has authored along with other scholars and writers. Thapar writes in its Introduction:

“In the last few months there has been, week after week, some activity or some statement tacitly or openly supported by those claiming authority, that is unacceptable to liberal opinion, yet the protest is not always manifested in public. There is an unspoken wish that illiberal demands will in time die a natural death with the advance of democracy. Yet can we be sure that this will happen? My argument is not that there are no public intellectuals nurturing discussion in India today, but rather that the critical mass that is required for public debate to become essential to our civic life is not as large as it needs to be. So why aren’t those that can be more outspoken speaking up? The fear is that in the absence of such a critical mass those that would like to question or comment succumb to self-censorship."

In its own attempts to create this critical mass, the Indian Writers’ Forum—which has grown to include not just writers and academics, but also artists, film-makers and musicians—has been visibly using both its website, Indian Cultural Forum, and social media platforms to highlight the statements, activities and responses to the protests initiated by the writers’ community.

In October, along with the Indian Cultural Forum website, it also launched Guftugu, an e-journal of arts and literature “which will help writers, scholars and cultural practitioners to do what they usually do—look at people and society through their work, without fear of intimidation, or being isolated," Hariharan says.

The forum has many plans, she says, but this requires the active involvement of those who can join them. “Already we hear some friends, in Kerala for example, plan to start a local group. This is exactly what should happen, a network of writers and artists supporting varied voices in times when plurality in India is in danger."

The need for an alternate forum for writers is imperative as along as the Sahitya Akademi remains a limp body. Under pressure from the protestors, the Akademi’s executive board had on 23 October passed a resolution asking central and state governments to ensure the security of writers, and protect the spirit of plurality in the country. It also requested authors to reconsider giving back their awards.

“I will say it’s a good thing there was, finally, a reaction. But it would have been better if the institution, given its autonomy, had said it would be proactive in the future when it comes to speaking up for its own," says Hariharan.

Daruwalla, who firmly states that there is no question of taking back his award, also admits to being perplexed at why the institution has been so scared to take a stand. “Why can’t the Sahitya Akademi speak up? There’s nothing which tells you not to. I suppose the Akademi shouldn’t go into Dadri or Dalit kids being burnt. But if a writer is murdered, you can’t say anything?" he asks.

“When institutions fail us, we have to build a different sort of space, because we cannot, in all conscience, remain silent," says Hariharan.

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