ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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When Silence Is Not an Option

The "award wapsi" reminds us of the place of literature in society.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley chooses to dismiss it as “a manufactured revolt” but only a partisan can miss noticing that the decision of more than 40 poets, writers and performers to return national awards as a form of protest is something that India has not seen since independence. When the distinguished English language writer Nayantara Sahgalreturned her 1986 Sahitya Akademi Award, along with Hindi poets Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi, few expected that this would escalate into a virtual flood of “award wapsi” as some have called it. Its significance lies in the wider context ofthe place of writers in a democracy. Why should writers from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Punjab, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Delhi and elsewhere feel moved at this juncture to return awards given to them by the country’s premier literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi? From the common thread running through their statements of protest, it is clear that they are disappointed that the Sahitya Akademi has said next to nothing about the daylight assassination of Kannada writer and Akademi award winner M M Kalaburgiin Dharwad in August this year, nor has it noted the growing atmosphere of intolerance that this murder represents. AsK Satchidanandan, former secretary of the Akademi pointed out, “Annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument that is the very essence of democracy.”

It is this shrinking space for argument, for dissent, for difference, happening not through direct government fiat but by the actions of groups directly linked to those in power that has alarmed the literary community. Instead of heeding these voices, ministers of the Modi government and Sangh Parivar members have chosen the typical strategy of asking why these writers did not return their awards when the Emergency was declared, or when the 1984 anti-Sikh riots took place. Through this false equivalence, they deliberately choose to ignore why writers are making this gesture now. As the poet Keki N Daruwalla pointed out, they are decrying the death of values that literature stands for like “freedom of expression against threat, upholding the rights of the marginalised, speaking up against superstitions and intolerance of any kind.”

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