In modern India, the State has on certain occasions given its patronage to important works of art. Moreover, depending on the nature of government, awards and accolades are showered on few artists and writers. Artists, however, since time immemorial have taken a political stand on key issues. Those who have been critical of the ruling establishment, usually face the wrath of governments and voluble non-state actors attached to them, irrespective of the political party in power. Returning awards given in the past is the one way through which these cultural figures have articulated their dissent. One must never underestimate the symbolic power of cultural figures, who dissent against governing ideologies. The celebrated Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and wrote a song about it. In the past week, writer Nayantara Sahgal has returned her Sahitya Akademi Award to mark her protest against what she deemed to be the “vanishing space” for diversity. In a short post titled “The Unmaking of India”, she made a reference to the killing of rationalists who dared to challenge Hindutva, the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri and the silence of Prime Minister Modi on this alleged “reign of terror”. Her gesture, she said, was in memory of all those who had been killed and in defence of the right to dissent. However, it is unfair to lay the entire blame at the doors of the current Modi government. It is true that organisations associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have shown a great degree of violence and intolerance against those who possess radically different positions on fundamental issues of culture and society. It is also true that BJP has not only failed to protect constitutional rights, but also, on certain occasions, fanned those very flames of intolerance and rabid violence. Nonetheless, the Indian State’s inability to accept a difference of opinion and dissent has a long and rather sordid history. Just ask Salman Rushdie, whose novel, “Midnights’ Children”, was expunged from bookstores around India by the Indira Gandhi government after radical Islamic groups voiced their abhorrence to certain passages in the book. It is another matter that none of these raving lunatics had bothered to read the book. Moreover, the book also implicitly criticised the Emergency years under Indira Gandhi. Maqbool Fida Hussain, probably the most renowned Indian artist post-Independence, was forced to live in exile after the previous Congress government failed to protect him from rabid Hindu fundamentalist groups.
Coming back to Sahgal, it is imperative to establish some context. The writer, niece of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru won her award for the novel “Rich like Us”, which was published in 1985. The book was a scathing indictment of the Emergency and the excesses committed by the wealthy elite. However, the award was presented to Sahgal by the Rajiv Gandhi government, which had just overseen the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Sahgal gesture of protest comes after the gruesome Dadri incident, where a man was lynched by a mob on mere suspicion of consuming cow meat. Now some would argue that people are allowed the manner and timing of their protests and it’s silly to ask why now, why not then. However, the issue is not of timing but of the principle. The gesture is clearly directed at the Modi government’s apparent inability to protect constitutional values. Her position against the Emergency was essentially based on the same principle. The Sahitya Akademi, however, is an “autonomous body” that is funded and supported by the Government of India. Considering that the 1984 Delhi riots under the Rajiv Gandhi government saw clear violations of that very principle, it does seem like selective outrage. As prominent journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has argued, “Shouldn’t she have refused to accept an award from a Rajiv Gandhi government that had stood by and watched the massacre?” Admittedly, the award is given out by the Akademi and not directly by the Government of India. Moreover, the gesture, some would argue, is against the Akademi, for not speaking out against the murder of previous awardees. The issue, though, is not just limited to our cultural figures.
What is even more disconcerting is the lack of real initiative shown by the self-styled “secular” political parties to defend values of religious tolerance and dissent. Earlier this week, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh reminded people that governments under his party were the ones banning cow slaughter in some 24 states including Bihar. Paradoxically, the party’s spokesperson Pramod Tiwari said it is not the party’s habit to interfere with the eating habits of individuals as long as they do not interfere with existing laws. Classic doublespeak notwithstanding, it is a clear sign of how these parties are unable to take a principled stand on the matter. As discussed in these columns earlier, the BJP is clearly culpable of vitiating the communal atmosphere in certain parts of this country. Nonetheless, those parties, who claim to uphold secular values, have also played the same game. Dissent and secularism are a lot bigger than issues of political convenience.