Over the last few months, Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah, General VK Singh and others who share their thinking have launched a counteroffensive. They rebuff the claim of writers, artists, academics and scientists returning their awards that intolerance is growing in India. Everything is hunky-dory with the nation, they claim. Tolerance is India’s signature and never has it been as pronounced as it is now. Had so-called liberals not been muddying the waters, India’s spirit of tolerance would not have been questioned today.

This proclamation of Indian tolerance is meant to showcase Hindu magnanimity, which, it is asserted, envelops the “sisterly” traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is the Muslims and Christians who are intolerant – they refuse to accept their Hindu-ness or find the Idea of Hindu problematic – and of course the liberals.

There is no doubt that the returning of national honours by eminent personalities has rattled the Hindutva establishment. Around the nation, Hindutva’s sway has been checked, and people are rebutting majoritarianism. But the real credit for initiating this must go to the students of the Film and Television Institute of India who pressed their demand for the removal of the new institute chairman for months, even after the media lost interest in their agitation.

The events of today are not new unique, of course. In the past too we have protested regimentation, bullying, arrogance and bigotry in this country, like when Nayantara Sahgal sharply criticised the draconian Emergency regime, or when people spoke up after the Babri Masjid demolition, the 1984 Delhi riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, PEN International and NGOs too numerous to name have raised the red flag at different times with courage and conviction. This is what happens, and should happen, in a society with multiple voices. Memory is short and the debates and protests from the pre-internet era are often lost in the pages of old newspapers. Khushwant Singh, we must recall with pride, had driven to the residence of President Giani Zail Singh to return his Padma Bhushan after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. I am certain there are many such stories, but my ability to recall more instances is limited by the fact that I am not a historian.

The protests today are not about a political party or an individual, even if he is the prime minister of India. They transcend the transients such as governments and leaders of the state. It is about the deeper repercussions that divisiveness can have on how we feel, think and live.

Powerful political act

The word "award" is from the Old French eswarder, which means, interestingly, to ward, to guard. So, to award is really to protect, to conserve. It is not so much to decorate, praise or confer as it is to safeguard. This etymological understanding changes our perspective towards what are egocentric decorations.

Rarely are awards born out of respect for any work or serious engagement. This is worse in the case of awards given out by the government or institutions under the government’s wings. Whether to return an award is, no doubt, a personal decision. But to claim that one is not returning an award because it has been given by objective peers or by the nation itself is a falsification of truths. Please do not return your awards, if you wish, but don’t claim that it was a pure offering from the awarders.

Those who have given back their awards also have something to think about. The returning of awards is, indeed, a powerful political act. But what does it say about the politics of receiving them? Unlike the Padma coronations, the Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi or National Film awards may be one step removed from the actual ministries. But they too are manipulated spaces. And here I am not only talking about political leanings – that is just one aspect.

The much deeper issue is the way these akademis and ministries use awards to gain a hold over academic, scientific and artistic communities. Without doubt, many members of these collectives have, and continue to, pamper people in control of these bodies. Everyone knows this, including those who have received the recognitions without indulging in vulgar lobbying. When these clean recipients accept their awards, are they not unwittingly being party to practices that undermine the value of their work. And beyond themselves, have they not reduced the value of academic, scientific or artistic integrity and independence? Have awards not been given to the same intolerant people that the returnees today oppose on principled grounds? Getting an award is a moment of great pride, but we fail to recognise that this pride blinds us to the larger malaise afflicting these recognitions. Intolerance begins right there.

A reactive movement

After a very long time, people from varied fields, regions, speaking different languages, with opposing religious beliefs and belonging to different castes have come together. We need to recognise the preciousness of this moment and hold on to it. We cannot remain separate entities, fragmented and divided by the differentiating aspects mentioned above. Writers cannot react only when other writers are attacked. Our socio-political view must go beyond our own perceptions and functionality to the larger spirit of human co-existence. I have not seen the same national condemnation from us, the self-proclaimed liberal group, of the ridiculous sedition charges against the Tamizh folk singer Koven and the way he was arrested.

There is another issue that has remained with me over this month and that is the fact that this whole movement has been reactive. A friend said to me, “But it is only now that we have reached this critical juncture.” Yes, it is true that the present situation needed a response, but we also need to introspect on the last decade and more. A lot of little things, with significant inflection points in between, have driven our nation here. And this is not just about the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Sangh Parivar – it is as much about the Congress and the many regional players. These political parties have systematically polarised the society, while the fragmented left parties have lost themselves in ideological fantasies and ignored their own violence.

The victors in this collective degeneration have been the extreme elements and the far right. The truth is that apart from the media and those in the social sector, who have been tirelessly sounding warnings, the rest of us have been silent. So today we cannot divorce our inaction and passivity from the atmosphere that surrounds us. Did we need to wait for the death of people to speak up in an unequivocal voice? Engaging with the society cannot be a reactionary process, it has to be observational and constant. We have to remain sensitive and proactive even in the most peaceful of times.

The inner self

I have an additional but equally vital appeal to make: This is not a fight of those who are called and who regard themselves as intellectuals.

The use of that word by the media, government and even some academicians for those who have sought governmental introspection has troubled me. Even if it has not been accepted by the protesters, it has most certainly not been disowned. We, the anti-intolerants, have placed ourselves on a pedestal, taking into our hands the right of thought and, in the process, appropriated the very act of intellection from the larger society. What makes us intellectual? Being creative individuals, historians, academics and writers? This is absurd and more seriously classist.

Every citizen of this country who engages with the social and political environment is an intellectual. We are all flawed, fragile, conditioned and manipulated human beings bound to make the gravest errors in life. In my mind, there is no difference in intellection between Irfan Habib or Ashis Nandy and a faceless farmer in West Bengal or a factory worker in Tirupur. All of them live and respond to life based on their journey, which makes them thinking people. This is not about right and wrong or good and bad, it is about mind and body. There is of course one significant difference between us and the rest: we are privileged, empowered. We are people with access. But if this is reinterpreted as being intellectual, it is indeed violence.

We forget that we are like everyone else. Yes, voices are being raised for everyone not just for intellectuals, but that cannot come from a position of patronage. It has to come from self-realisation. I am not saying that this is happening purposely, but it is indeed being heard that way. Which means there is a problem in thought and articulation. And let us not forget that by allowing this label of intellectual we are providing the accusers another weapon to make our voices marginal or irrelevant.

Those of us who are participating in this protest must engage with utmost sincerity with the outer as well as with our inner. It is in this honesty that we will find strength and a way forward.