For a country that never fails to remind itself and the world that it is the world’s largest democracy, we seem to be singularly lacking in one of the qualities essential to a truly democratic society: an appreciation of the principle of dissent. In recent times, nowhere has this lack been more obviously visible than in the curious backlash against the artistes who have surrendered their Sahitya Akademi awards.

Now numbering close to 40, the artistes who have returned awards write and perform in a number of Indian languages, and include in their distinguished ranks Nayantara Sahgal, GN Devy, Keki Daruwalla, and Krishna Sobti. Others, such as Shashi Deshpande have resigned from positions in the Akademi.

As Ramachandra Guha pointed out in a column recently, these writers are not necessarily aligned with any particular political party. A host of other Indian writers, thinkers, and intellectuals, such as Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth, have strongly supported the right of the artistes to signal their dissent through their act.

Three related protests

The returning of the awards by the writers signals three related acts of protest.

First, against rising intolerance in the country, seen, for example, in the chilling murder of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi and in brutal attacks on religious minorities.

Second, against the Sahitya Akademi for refusing to take a strong stand on the Kalburgi assassination and the general climate of hostility against writers in the present moment.

And, third, against the Indian government for its inaction and silence on both these counts.

The act has triggered angry denunciations by politicians in the government, accusations by right-wing columnists of a selective “hatred” of the Modi government, mumblings about the double standards of the writers by disgruntled celebrities such as Anupam Kher, and incoherent tweets by Censor Board member Ashok Pandit.

The particular substantive objections to the writers notwithstanding, the principle of dissent and the right of the writers to dissent has completely been set aside in each of these objections. The same erasure can also be seen in the flood of tweets by the Indian right-wing on Twitter.

The ease with which the fundamental right of dissent – which belongs not just to Indian writers but to all Indian citizens – is ignored and deemed irrelevant reveals something fundamental about the nature of the social context in which the protests are occurring.

Knowing their place

It is a reflection of the deep-seated social conservatism of Indian society, expressed as a contract, tacit or explicit, that every person should know their place in the great chain of Indian being.

Writers, in this Indian scheme of things are meant to write and tell stories, not to protest. Each writer is meant to illuminate his or her little corner of the world, based on his or her experience, in his or her chosen language, for his or her audience. As long as they don’t offend the religious sensibilities of their own or other communities or speak up against the nation.

This sentiment is perfectly summed up in the words of Bharatiya Janata Party politician Vijay Goel: “Writers should be concerned with their pen only, otherwise giving awards would be stopped.”

Differential privileges

Indian politicians, in contrast, have the licence to say the most outrageous things in the name of politics, because, well, this is what they do, what we expect, and endlessly put up with. We forgive the most offensive statements by politicians, the ugly entitlements of Very Important People culture, and allegations of crimes – heck, we even forgive pogroms.

The principle of differential privilege shapes any number of assumptions about which kind of Indian is entitled to exactly what.

Thus Indian hearts, regardless of where their political sympathies lie, bleed when a film star might have to serve time for involvement in a crime leading to deaths but the same hearts remain indifferent to the ordinary undertrial languishing in jail on the flimsiest of charges without the possibility of bail.

It is considered perfectly legitimate for a banker to travel first class to India on the Indian government’s tab, but woe betide Amartya Sen if he at 81 does not want to suffer the abominations of economy class air travel on a flight from the United States to India.

It is why Indians who talk a good game about caste, class, and religious equality see no contradiction between holding forth about the evils of apartheid South Africa without once asking the "drivers" and "servants" working for them to sit on their living room sofas.

The greatest transgression of the writers, then, has been to exceed their brief as Indians, to speak out of turn. This explains the curious paradox, pointed out by Mitali Saran, of any numbers of Indians raging against unpatriotic writers even as they insist simultaneously on the irrelevance of the same ungrateful bunch.

Perceived disrespect 

With the afterglow of the Modi honeymoon fading away, the heresy committed by the writers converges with a perceived disrespect for India, with India itself deemed indistinguishable from the larger-than-life, well-coutured, globe-trotting personality of Modi. If India was Indira in the context of the non-aligned world, on the global stage India is Modi, all tricolour and Facebook, both pizza and pizzazz, at once technology and tradition.

In the conservative Indian imagination, the writers returning awards are thus guilty not just of behaving badly at home but of throwing tantrums in public too. We are now in the familiar Indian territory of besmirching honour and naak katwa di, of betraying family, community, religion, or nation.

This, of course, is democratically applied across the board in India, from the child who does not clear some competitive exam to the son or daughter who chooses their own life partner, from the H1B holder who gets laid off in the US to the middle-aged vegetarian man who gets caught out for eating a mutton roll at a roadside stall.

We should thank the writers all the more then. In addition to their courageous gesture of protesting the attacks on minorities and writers, and the sloth of a cynical government, they remind us there is much, much more we need to protest about. And that the task of dissenting is never done.

In the day since I initially wrote this article, the Akademi has finally responded to the protests. In a clear statement it has denounced the violence against writers and affirmed its commitment to free speech, also requesting the writers to take back their awards. For whatever it is worth, it has also recognised that the right to disagree and dissent, whatever its object, is inherently precious to a democracy.