Writers from across India, an unorganised group, are returning their literary awards or resigning from official positions in the Sahitya Akademi, the highest institution formed to promote and assess literary works and nurture the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.

It is bizarre and unprecedented in independent India’s history. I am reminded of a scene in the film Gandhi where South Africans of Indian descent, led by Mahatma Gandhi, defy the British by throwing their residence permits into a fire.

In the case of the Indians in South Africa, the British soldiers watched the act of defiance before retaliating with violence. It was clearly an impotent rage.

As the Indian writers threw away their awards or spoke up against the growing intolerance of dissent, the government nonchalantly watched on at first before hitting back with an absurd rage.

Loss of autonomy

Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s reaction, which included calling the writers’ protest a manufactured revolt, was utterly pathetic. It was none of his business to speak on the issue, given that the Akademi is an autonomous body.

I sensed the loss of the cultural body’s autonomy when I attended a meeting held in Bangalore by the local Sahitya Akademi to pay tribute to Professor MM Kalburgi, who was shot dead in Dharwad a month ago.

It was an assembly of Kannada writers. I am a Tamil writer, but decided to attend the meeting in solidarity with Professor Kalburgi, a fellow writer. I am not familiar with his work, but have only heard about what he stood and fought for till it cost him his life.

At the meeting, I was appalled that there was no sense of anger or dismay in the speeches about Kalburgi’s death. It was regarded as a natural death. Anguish and pain was only evident in a couple speeches, but there was a tone of caution that accompanied it.

What were these writers afraid of? My question was answered when I heard that intelligence officials had visited writer Ganesh Devy in Gujarat after he returned his Sahitya Akademi award. They allegedly asked him if writers had launched a campaign to spread disaffection across the state.

Arun Jaitley’s outburst about a manufactured protest and allegations that the writers were indulging in politics because of their ideological differences is ominous. It is an indication that intellectual institutions are now nothing but a part of the government. It was worse than the impotent rage of the British soldiers – aggressors lording over a land that did not belong to them. These comments came from a minister part of a democratically-elected government. It was indeed a brutal assault on the community of writers and it is scary.

Hitting a nerve

Perhaps Jaitley’s rage was targeted at Nayantara Sahgal, the writer who triggered the protests by expressing her dissent at the growing intolerance in the country after the Dadri lynching incident, in which a Muslim man was murdered for allegedly storing beef in his home.

Sahgal condemned the prime minister’s silence over the murder of writers who had expressed views against the ideology of Hindutva. But how can a writer, especially from the Nehru clan, dare to attack the prime minister, who has become a demigod? It is nothing but blasphemy.

“Writers with Left or Nehruvian leanings who enjoyed the patronage of the previous establishment are not comfortable with the Modi dispensation,” said Jaitley. This is laughable.  There is something seriously wrong with this kind of defence. It betrays a feeling a insecurity, which is absurd. It also adds insult to injury.

Nothing new

Jaitley also asks, “Why now?” Writers have been continuously writing about what disturbs them and have spoken out against atrocities and human rights violations. They have done so in their own style and genres through plays, novels and poetry. They are artists, not activists, but have never failed to express their anguish when something is not right.

As a Tamil writer, I have written a novel based on my experience of the 1984 riots in Delhi. But there comes a time when one has to become vocal and say “enough is enough”.

It is said that the French Revolution began when the Rousseau wrote: “Man is born free but is in chains”. This will not happen in India but the writers scattered across India and speaking different languages have a common sentiment – our freedom is at stake.

Why now? Well, it is the culmination of a series of events that have occurred with regularity, violating the constitutional rights of people. There are attacks on the minorities, the freedom to eat, speak, write and sing. And then there is the imperious silence maintained by an otherwise talkative prime minister which has shook the intelligentsia.

Political statement

No one, I believe, can be apolitical. When the writers protest against the establishment, it is a political statement. We speak up for our constitutional rights that guarantee us the freedom to live, express ourselves and think differently.

There is a plague of intolerance rapidly spreading across the country. And when violent means are used to suppress free speech and dissent, the all-powerful prime minister passes the buck. He forgets that it his responsibility to speak convincingly against growing intolerance and to send a tough message to his ministers and MPs who wantonly make provocative communal speeches.

Does the prime minister not understand that it was his silence that forced the President of India to speak out against the atmosphere of intolerance? And that the response of flailing his arms and raising his voice was far too little, too late?

Yes, the writers’ response may appear dramatic. To protest against negative forces is a time-honoured practice. You speak of Hindu heritage – remember that it began with the bhakti poets? Today, the form of protest has changed because the discourse itself has changed.

If writers and thinkers do not speak up, who else will? It is for the government to ponder over the question of “Why now?”