In an unprecedented move, Indian writers, poets and artists are returning their awards in droves to protest what they say is a culture of rising intolerance in the country.
As Bismillah Geelani reports, the protest has brought renewed focus to the rising trend of hate crimes against religious minorities under the government of prime minister Narendra Modi.
For 63-year-old Hindi writer Uday Prakash, receiving the coveted Sahitya Academy Award was a dream come true.
He was awarded the prize by the National Academy of Letters for his outstanding contribution to Indian literature, one of the highest literary honors.
Prakash never imagined that one day he might be compelled to return it, but he says in India right now there is an attempt to create a ‘monolithic’ culture.
“A culture where people should have similar religious beliefs, the same political thinking and follow similar eating habits and dress code,” he explains, “They want us writers to fall on their feet and think the way they think, write the way they want us to write and speak the language they like. This won’t happen.”
Prakash returned his award after three fellow liberal writers were killed earlier this year. Two of the writers were killed in their homes, while another was shot dead on his morning walk.
Prakash believes it was their dissenting voice that cost them their life.
“All of them were elderly people, in their late 70s or early 80s and what was their crime? They were rationalists and tried to break people free from the cages of superstition,” he says, “They were fighting superstition with scientific argument and if you didn’t agree with them you could have put forth your argument, but they were killed.”
Since the writers were killed, there has been a series of attacks on Muslims, Christians and Dalits across the country. Human rights defenders, journalists and advocates of free speech have also been intimidated and harassed.
Many believe Hindu extremist groups are behind the attacks and enjoy the tacit approval of the Modi government.
Activist Shabnam Hashmi’s NGO Anhad has been documenting the events. She says the figures point to an alarming trend.
“It's not only about minorities it’s an assault on the country’s diversity and pluralism,” says Hashmi, “It’s not that these things didn’t happen earlier, but we have recorded more than 1,000 cases in just one year and we see meticulous planning in each case.”
Dozens of writers, poets and artists have joined Prakash to protest what they say is a growing culture of intolerance in India.
Maya Krishna Rao is noted theatre artist. She also returned her award and squarely blames the government for the prevailing situation.
A whole lot of what are called non-state actors are being given a free reign. They are violent, they are goons and the point is that the government is not reining them in,” she says.
Rao says that rather than condemning the acts, the government appears to be promoting them.
More than 40 writers and artists have returned their awards since the movement started last month. There has never been anything like it in India before, says Rao.
“This has not happened in Independent India [before] where on a daily basis the front page is being taken up by scholars, writers and artists and every day the number is rising,” she says, “I don’t think it’s going to stop and it’s already become like a movement. It’s a very unusual movement.”
But the government appears unmoved – arguing the writers and artists are politically motivated.
Arun Jaitley is a senior member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. He claims that most of the writers and artists returning their awards are those that were favored by the former government.
“But after this government came to power they are feeling uncomfortable because they no longer enjoy the power patronage. This is a just a paper rebellion by people who are ideologically opposed to the BJP,” he says, “This is intellectual and ideological intolerance on their part.”
But senior journalist Siddharth Vardarajan strongly disagrees with the minister. He says there is a growing sense of anxiety about fundamental freedoms in the country.
“I think it’s excellent that writers and cultural personalities are raising their voice about it because it is something that affects and concerns a large number of people,” argues Vardarajan, “It requires the government to respond in a proper way and not this hectoring and almost abusive tone. This kind of response only underlines the importance of what the writers are doing.”