We are now four writers, from three pan-Indian languages i.e. Hindi, Urdu and English, belonging to four generations, who have returned our Sahitya Akademi Award in protest. We are not alone: there are many in most languages and other artistic and intellectual vocations and locations who are feeling equally agitated, angry and anxious. None of us belong to any political party though we have views on politics. But we are extremely worried at the way the India polity is moving. All spaces of liberal values and thought, all locations of dissent and dialogue, all attempts at sanity and mutual trust are under assault almost on a daily basis. All kinds and forms of violence, whether religious and communal, consumerist and globalising, caste-based and cultural, social and domestic, are on the upswing. An ethos of bans, suspicions, hurt feelings is being promoted by many forces that are active and have been emboldened by powers that be, without the slightest fear of law. Democratic rights of expression, faith, privacy etc are being looked down upon and curbed or disrupted without provocation or fault.
A new political hypocrisy has emerged centre-stage: make all the constitutionally correct statements on freedom, liberty, secular fabric, tolerance but keep quiet or dilute or take no action against those who blatantly violate both spirit of the constitution and the rule of law. A citizen almost does not have a fundamental right to life, freedom etc. You can live or be free if they allow you to be so.
A lot of this is being done in the name of Indian tradition and culture. There cannot be a bigger insult or greater damage to the Indian tradition than this. One of the most ancient in the world, this tradition belongs to a civilisational enterprise called India. It is perhaps the largest in the world, unique in its plurality of language, religion, custom, cuisine, costume, craft etc. Nothing in India has remained singular for long, everything sooner or later turns plural or becomes part of a large plural. Not god, nor language, not system of philosophy and reflection, nor faith and worship, not to speak of belief and value. There have always been forces amongst us who do not like this deeply enriching plurality and who would see it replaced by some kind of uniformity which they believe would be more manageable. Our tradition has not only been one of plurality but also of dialogue and accommodation, interrogation and dissent, of public debate, innovation and scrutiny. The shastraarth, one of the unique institution of public testing of ideas and insights used to take place in public between contesting view points. The Indians have never been afraid or intolerant of dissent or debate.
Even gods have been questioned and some of them have been punished when found to be violating the accepted moral or ethical code. Literature in India, even in its democratic history of more than half a century have remained largely anti-establishment. The Emergency, Sikh Riots, demolition of Babri Masjid, Punjab terrorism, Nandigram violence and naxalite and state violence in tribal areas, Gujarat pogroms etc have all provoked writers and artists to protest against and condemn the damage done to social fabric, communal harmony and creative life. They would be failing in their duty if they did not do so. For, good or bad, the creative and reflective community is also believed to be the conscience-keepers of the country. Some of us are only adhering to our own noble tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’. So we decided to return the Sahitya Akademi award by way of protest, also to bring to the notice of the public that assaults to our freedom are increasing and we the writers, artists, intellectuals are extremely worried and concerned.
(Ashok Vajpeyi, a poet and essayist, was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award in 1994)