Conscientious Objector

'Your moment of reckoning has come': GN Devy, Aman Sethi return Sahitya Akademi awards

Full text of their letters to the president of the literary institution explaining their decisions to return the national honour.

It is with utmost regret that I convey to you that I wish to return the 1993 Sahitya Akademi  Award given in the category of books in English to my  work After Amnesia (1992). I do this as an expression of my solidarity with several eminent writers who have recently returned their awards to highlight their concern and anxiety over the shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion.

These eminent writers have already stated their concerns in statements sent to you as well as through media interviews and discussions. I need not, therefore, state again what has already been conveyed to you. However, I would like to add that I visited Dharwad in the first week of August, just three weeks before the shocking attack on the late Dr MM Kalburgi which resulted in his death. I was there to deliver the First VK Gokak Memorial Lecture.

You may recall that the high office that you hold at present, on behalf of the literary community of our country, was at one time held, among many other mighty predecessors, by VK Gokak. He was the Principal of Willingdon College during the years of the Independence movement. On one occasion, when the police came to arrest students, he stood at the entrance of the college, blocked their entry and asked them to first arrest him before they touched the students. It was this kind of concern for freedom that he brought to the institutions he headed. I hope you do not think that he was not sufficiently pragmatic.

When I gave the Gokak lecture, Dr Kalburgi was still alive. Alas, he had to fall to the forces of intolerance. A week after his killing, I participated in a Seminar organised by the Sahitya Akademi. This was in Nagpur. I was to preside over the Inaugural Session. I was quite dismayed to see that the seminar began without a word of reference to the recent attack on a scholar honoured by the Akademi. Therefore, when my turn to speak came at the end of the session, I asked the audience if they would object to my observing a two-minute silence to mourn the dastardly killing. Please note that all of them stood up in silence with me. If our writers and literary scholars had the courage to stand up in Nagpur, I fail to understand why there should be such a deafening silence at Ravindra Bhavan about what is happening to free expression in our country.

I have personally known both of you as my seniors, and have admired your writings and imaginative powers. May I make bold to say that your moment of reckoning has come? I hope you will give this country the assurance that it is the writers and thinkers who have come forward to rescue sense, good-will, values, tolerance and mutual respect in all past ages. Had this not been so, why would we be remembering the great saint poets who made our modern Indian languages what they are today?   The great idea of India is based on a profound tolerance for diversity and difference.  They far surpass everything else in importance. That we have come to a stage when the honourable Rastrapatiji had to remind the nation that these must be seen as non-negotiable foundations of India, should be enough of a reason for the Sahitya Akademi to act.  – GN Devy

Aman Sethi's letter

In 2012, I was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, an award given by the Akademi for writers under the age of 35. At the time, I was conflicted about accepting the award as I wondered if I should accept an award conferred by the state.

I chose to accept the award as I believed the Akademi’s official charter that states that the institution is an autonomous, publicly funded body registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act of 1980. Thus, the Akademi, to use an analogy, is an autonomous institution much the same way that public universities are autonomous – they are state-funded, i.e. they are run on public money, but are not government run. The Akademi award is thus a state honour, not a “government” honour – and this is an important distinction.

We, as citizens, have as much a claim on the Sahitya Akademi as any government of the day. Accepting the award, I thought at the time, would be a way of asserting our claim on this space of collective articulation, and acknowledging the efforts of the Akademi’s members in carving out an autonomous space for arts and letters in India.

Today, I would like to return my award and have sent an email to the institution, informing them of my decision. While I believe the arguments I have listed above are still valid, recent events suggest that the Akademi is neither interested in supporting writers in their fight to push the boundaries of expression and thought, nor in asserting its autonomy at a time when the spirit of critical inquiry is clearly under threat.

I am shocked by the Akademi’s refusal to take a firm stance on the assassination of scholar, rationalist and Sahitya Akademi Award winner M.M. Kalburgi (a condolence meeting is not the same as a statement of solidarity) and its silence in the face of attacks on writers like U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Perumal Murugan in the past. This appears to be in line with what Akademi President Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari calls the institution’s “tradition” of staying silent on “political controversies”.

The Akademi cannot simultaneously draw its legitimacy of purpose and existence by celebrating writers like Kaliburgi, while shying clear of standing in solidarity when they are targeted. Here, the idea of a workers union offers a useful analogy in that a union is relevant only for as along it is autonomous and serves its members. When a union becomes a tool for management – as many unions eventually become – workers break away and form their own associations that may, or may not, choose the union form.

In this instance, I think, a number of writers (some of whom have written books I admire) feel that the Akademi has failed in its primary purpose of supporting authors. While I may or may not agree with all the views and politics of all those who have returned their awards, I stand with them on this specific issue.

Institutions like the Sahitya Akademi need writers, authors, and journalists much more than we need them. We are fortunate that our primary loyalties reside with our readers. It is to our readers that we are answerable, not to institutions of state.

For the reasons above, I am returning my award. – Aman Sethi

Update: This article has been updated to add Aman Sethi's resignation letter.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.