In the last few days, littérateurs of this country have received the most widespread media coverage. Their receiving the award from the Sahitya Akademi would not have made as much news as their returning it did. The hype continues as you read this. Writers like me who disagree with this mode of protest and expressed our opinion on social media were at the receiving end of reverse “liberal trolls", branded as communal, fascist and bootlickers of the “despotic, intolerant and authoritarian" Modi regime. These epithets were hurled at us, ironically, in support of freedom of expression. I was reminded of what Bertrand Russell wrote in Unpopular Essays, “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd."

The Sahitya Akademi was established in 1954 “to work actively for the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards, to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages...." Though set up by the government, the Akademi functions as an autonomous organization. Independent panels of eminent littérateurs for each of the 23 Indian languages and English annually judge outstanding works of literary merit under various categories—Senior, Yuva Puraskar, translation and children’s literature. Like all autonomous institutions under the Union ministry of culture, the Akademi too depends on the government for funding, but maintains a distance from it. The supreme decision maker is a 99-member general council made up of writers, academicians and apolitical representatives from across India.

The Akademi award is not bestowed by the government, as the Padma awards are. Several eminent writers, some of whom I regard as my literary role models, are recipients of the Padma awards as well. I fail to understand why they are barking up a wrong tree and insulting a jury of compatriots—writers and scholars—who have selected their work. The Akademi is not a political or an activist body. As its president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari conceded, even during the dark days of the Emergency, the Akademi did not stray from its core literary objective. Were there protests then about the silence of the Akademi when the ruling ideology subjugated everything that India stood for? Have members of the executive council raised these issues in earlier meetings, since the time of the Emergency, making the point that the Akademi needs to take a more proactive stand on contemporary socio-political issues? We writers have not found out.

This award has built the careers of several writers, and accrued intangibles like goodwill and prestige that come with it. Award-winning books get translated into all Indian languages and authors receive royalty. Award-winning writers are sent on important cultural and literary delegations across India and abroad by the Akademi. Are all these privileges to be returned too for the sake of protest against the government, which has no direct role to play in this organization?

As a creative person, the idea of a “ban" troubles me immensely. Just in the last two-three decades, several books have been banned by various state governments and the Union government: Early Islam by Desmond Stewart (1975), Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Edwards (1975), Who Killed Gandhi? by Lourenço de Salvador (1979), The Satanic Verses (1988) and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), both by Salman Rushdie, Soft Target: How The Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada by Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew (1989), Understanding Islam Through Hadis by Ram Swarup (1991), Holy Cow: Beef In Indian Dietary Traditions by D.N. Jha (2001), Dwikhandito by Taslima Nasreen (2003), Shivaji: Hindu King In Islamic India by James Laine (2004), The True Furqan by Al Saffee and Al Mahdee (2005), The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2006), Islam: A Concept Of Political World Invasion by R.V. Bhasin (2007), Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence by Jaswant Singh (2009), and Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India by Joseph Lelyveld (2011). Writers like Rushdie and Nasreen are under threat in India. Rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were murdered in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and the latest in this sordid series is Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi. Academician and writer T.J. Joseph’s hand was chopped off by fundamentalists in 2010 in Kerala on allegations of blasphemy.

It is intriguing that the writer community was largely silent when books were banned, authors attacked, and rationalists killed. Why the selective outrage, as though apocalypse has descended on us as far as freedom of expression is concerned? Intolerance and violence against a contrary opinion is not a sudden phenomenon in India.

Communal riots have wounded our country for far too long. Writers have not taken actively consistent stands against governments that have remained silent about catastrophes like the Emergency, the horrific riots of Maliana, Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Godhra, the Delhi Sikh riots, displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, Graham Staines’ murder, the Bhopal gas tragedy, Babri Masjid demolition or Mumbai blasts.

As an optimist, I do not believe in resignation and quitting. If there is a widespread belief (with possible truth in it too) that an atmosphere of state-supported intolerance exists today, as people in positions of moral and intellectual influence, the onus of staying the course and fighting it out from within the system is on them. It serves the government well to have these vacancies filled by ideologues who align with it, which is bound to weaken institutions further and destroy the cause of freedom of expression.

For me, my Sahitya Akademi award is a precious attestation of my work by my own community of writers and intellectuals, and the state of India, not its government. It was not given to me for being a political stooge. The best way to uphold freedom of thought, speech and expression from regimes of all orientations is to write, write, write.

Even as I see the next author resigning or returning their award, I am reminded of writer James Rozoff, who said, “Sheep only need a single flock, but people need two: one to belong to and make them feel comfortable, and another to blame all of society’s problems on."

Vikram Sampath is is a Bengaluru-based historian and a Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winner.

Close